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Time Magazine Is Not Making Americans Ignorant

A recent "outrageous image of the day" reposted by all my liberal friends on Facebook compares the US and non-US covers of Time magazine's December 5, 2011 issue:

The implication is that Time doesn't think people in the US want serious, important news. The Sociological Images blog picked up this image and ran with that interpretation, placing it alongside several other similar juxtapositions from past issues of Time and Newsweek. These images are described as evidence of American "ignorance of global issues and international news" and "that our news outlets feed us fluff and focus us only on the U.S."

But consider this alternative image:

Suddenly, it looks like the international audience that's being fed fluff, and US audiences who are getting serious news.

Luckily, Time has an easy archive of past covers. I went through and counted up the characteristics of the last year's issues. In this analysis, I'm abiding by the terms of the original outrageous image -- non-US politics constitutes good, serious news while other stories are fluff, and we're judging only based on the cover, not the overall content of the magazine or quality of the story (you can write a really bad, fluffy story about Afghanistan, after all).

The first thing to note is that 34 out of 52 issues had essentially identical covers. Many of these were about serious non-US politics stories such as the death of Muammar Gadhaffi or the social unrest in Europe. A few were equally fluffy, like the royal wedding. I counted 13 of the same-everywhere covers as being about non-US politics, using a very narrow definition that excluded serious issues like clean energy. This also excluded stories on US events that could affect the world (is the US economic crisis less serious or internationally relevant than the Eurozone crisis?). The Oct. 31 issue was the only one in which the US edition showcased non-US politics while the non-US editions did not, while the reverse was true 10 times (and 6 issues had different US and non-US covers but neither was about non-US politics). That would seem to validate the original intent of the image. Nevertheless, many of the US covers in those pairings were still about serious topics like the US job market and cancer treatment. Overall, US readers of Time seem to be getting exposed to plenty of non-US politics in their cover stories.

What I would find interesting -- but unfortunately do not have time to do right now -- would be a sociological analysis of how the original outrageous image was selected and promoted. How did it move through social networks? And what sort of rhetorical work is it doing in reinforcing the idea of the "stupid American"?


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