The British hear more about the U.S. than we are about them

Saturday, July 19, 2008 | 10:00 a.m. CDT; updated 4:22 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

LONDON — The United States and the United Kingdom have long been linked by ties of language, culture, heritage and war. We even share celebrities. But how much do we actually know about each other, and how do we know it?

To get my students thinking about the role journalism plays in what scholars call the social construction of reality, I had them take a look at how the British press covers the U.S. and vice versa. They came up with an unsurprising snapshot. The Brits are told a lot more about their former colonies than we colonials are told about Britain.

Today I’ll try to bring you up to date on some of what you may have missed.

The British press is mainly consumed these days with two serious issues — the declining economy and rising violence.

The former echoes what’s happening in the States. Home values are dropping, mortgages are being foreclosed, construction is slowing, unemployment is rising, as are prices. Truckers are protesting high fuel prices while shoppers bemoan dramatic increases in the cost of groceries. The stock market is wobbling. Blame is being apportioned in all directions. Solutions are thin on the ground, as we say here.

The story of violence reflects both similarities and at least one important difference in our two cultures. One similarity is that both victims and perpetrators are disproportionately poor and black. Another similarity is that the exceptions — such as two French graduate students who were brutally killed and robbed and a middle-class 16-year-old stabbed while celebrating his examinations — make the headlines.

So far this year, 20 teenagers have been murdered in London alone.

The big difference from America is that the weapon of choice here is the knife rather than the gun. All those 20, and the French students, were stabbed to death. The police are setting up special anti-knife units. London’s new mayor — a flamboyant former journalist and Conservative — controversially advised the other day that youngsters shouldn’t try to intervene if they see somebody else attacked.

In other news, there’ve been a couple of recent scientific studies I haven’t seen reported in the Missourian or the New York Times. One, from the World Bank, blames the push for biofuels for 75 percent of the recent rise in food prices. British policy makers have joined American counterparts in promoting ethanol. Now they’re reconsidering. The other study, the source of which I’ve forgotten, reports that when global warming’s full effects are felt, the best place to be is Canada.

You also won’t have seen much about the badger cull. Badgers, the burrowing animals that seem as plentiful in the British countryside as groundhogs in Missouri, are suspected of carrying TB, which can infect cows. The farmers naturally pushed for a campaign to cull — a gentler term for killing — badgers. The government has ruled that there’ll be no badger cull, at least none with official approval. Some fearful farmers are expected to shoot first and ask forgiveness later.

Still, it’s probably safer these days to be a British badger than a London teenager. And that’s the news from the mother country.

George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.

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