Within the Boundaries of Politics: News Framing of Sars in China and the United States

Article excerpt

This research examined news frames in coverage of SARS by newspapers in China and the United States. The assumption was that with the adoption of Western news values and practices, the Chinese press would exhibit news frames similar to those found in Western news. The results showed the presence of economic consequences, responsibility, conflict, leadership, and human-interest news frames in both the U.S. and Chinese newspapers. Depending on the newspaper's country of origin, however, the degree and manner of the frame uses varied.

Researchers have long understood news as an artifact of a socially constructed reality. In making news, journalists shape a reality that reflects the political economic and ideological boundaries within which they work.1 As such, patterns exist in the underlying messages of news items that reflect the structural and/or ideological elements impinging on journalists and their profession.

Through an examination of consistencies in news content, this research seeks to contribute to the growing body of knowledge concerning China's evolving media system, a system characterized as transitional.2 While strains of political ideology and tradition remain intact, China's current market-oriented economy has resulted in a complex media system where tensions exist between political demands and economic needs. Governmental control mechanisms co-exist with everincreasing commercial incentives.3 Still under the watchful eye of the government, the Chinese news media are increasingly adopting Western news values and practices in order to sustain operations or to flourish in China's authoritarian market economy.4 The question then is: If China's news media are now adopting Western news values and practices, are such values and practices reflected in their content? We explored this question by analyzing how newspapers in China reported the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome or SARS epidemic,5 and comparing it with coverage by U.S. newspapers. Working from the premise that politics often set the parameters of news discourse, we examined through framing analysis the similarities and differences between the Chinese and U.S. news stories. We argued that with China's adoption of Westernstyle reporting, similarities would be evident; the extent of these similarities, however, would be contained by the politics in each nation.

News Values and Practices in China

Earlier research on China's news media6 was based on the idea that the press was a mouthpiece of the central government and an ideological apparatus of the state. This perspective has changed, however, with recognition that economic reforms implemented since the late 1970s have brought about new news-making incentives. Although discussions7 of China's media system do acknowledge continued restrictions in the form of editorial oversight and structural control, scholars8 agree that the news media can no longer be viewed as merely presenting "propaganda designed to manipulate or indoctrinate the Chinese public mind."9 They write of both commercial and ideological forces infringing on Chinese journalists and of the press' new guiding tenet of pursuing marketing objectives while preserving the Chinese Communist Party's ideological control.10

Marketing is of increasing concern to China's news media as growth in number of available news outlets has made commercial survival imperative.11 Experiencing drastic reductions in governmental subsidies, even party newspapers have emulated their competitors' marketing strategies.12 To compete with nonparty mass appeal papers, they have added entertainment sections and established commercialized subsidiary publications.

Chinese journalists have incorporated elements of Western-style news reporting as well.13 Pan and Chan found that while many still regard the party organ news media role as ideal and believe journalism's role is interpreting government policies, a significant number of journalists perceive Western news media as ideal and report adopting Western news values and norms. …