A Textual Analysis of the Coverage of SARS and the Image of China - A Comparative Analysis

Article excerpt

Abstract

This paper examines the news coverage of the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) crisis in 2003 in the US and UK newspapers via a qualitative approach, comparing the dominant news frames used across time and between the newspapers. The four newspapers frame SARS as a global health crisis which resulted from China's incompetence and mishandling. Moreover, China's deep-rooted political problems are illustrated because of the nationwide crisis, thus this health crisis is also perceived in the coverage as a serious political threat to the CCP ruling. The theme of China's initial concealment of information is selected and foregrounded in the newspapers, encouraging and reinforcing readers' negative perception of China as incompetent to handle a crisis. The image of the Chinese government in the SARS crisis is presented as an incompetent one which cannot effectively control the epidemic and attempts to hide the truth about the disease from its people as well as the outside world. In general, China represents not only an autocratic authority, but also an outdated communist country in the newspapers.

Keywords: Textual analysis, News frames, SARS, China

This paper is a case study analysing coverage of the People's Republic of China (PRC) in four major western newspapers regarding the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (hereafter SARS). Such an analysis is important for further understanding of how news frames produce particular meanings which construct representations of China. The study adopts a news textual analysis approach to dissect news reports in the New York Times (NYT), the Washington Post (WP), the Daily Telegraph (DT), and the Guardian (G). These have been selected because they are seen as 'quality' newspapers (Bell, 1991) and are therefore regarded as more suitable for research on international coverage since they carry a higher volume of foreign news than others. In addition, since American presses have received more attention to date, this paper broadens the scope of existing analyses by providing a comparative analysis which may generate a richer discussion of news frames on China. Meanwhile, the two British newspapers represent different political and ideological perspectives within British society. DT is traditionally quite conservative press while G has a tradition of support for liberal causes. Their differing 'public idioms' (Hall, 1978) may suggest dissimilar representation of China; however, the similarity of their representations may indicate the extent to which there is a dominant frame in China reporting.

The paper is organized into four major sections. In order to understand the significance of the SARS case and provide some elementary information, the first section provides the background to the crisis. The second section sketches an analytical framework for news frame analysis and sampling. The third section comprises the news textual analysis which follows the thematic structure of the story. Finally, the conclusion asks why the health crisis and China were represented in the way they were.

1. Introduction

Before the SARS crisis, China's international reputation was quite positive since relations with the US and other significant powers in world politics were improving. It had just been selected as the host for the 2008 Olympics and joined the World Trade Organization. But in the course of the crisis, with China being reported as the origin of the disease in western media, and certain diplomatic action being taken with respect to China and the Chinese people; the image of China was affected as well. These issues are the primary focus of this case study.

SARS was believed to have originated in southern China at the end of 2002, with the virus spreading quickly to neighbouring places such as Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and northern China. From April 2003, SARS became 'globalised' because of its easily contracted nature, causing serious casualties in several places including China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and Canada (Toronto). …