Who’s Playing the Blame Game? – An Analysis of Media Framing of China and COVID-19 in The New York Times

By Shasha Lin and Hien Le Pham

On January 6, 2020, The New York Times (hereafter “NYT”) published its first report on COVID-19 with the headline “China Grapples with Mystery Pneumonia-Like Illness.” This mysterious virus was later described by its reporter Denise Grady as “a deadly Chinese coronavirus” on January 17, 2020. As the novel coronavirus spread around China in January and February, China was called “the real sick man of Asia” by The Wall Street Journal (hereafter “WSJ”),  and Chinese were depicted by the NYT as hard-core believers in the magical powers of exotic foods such as bat and palm civet. Since the epidemic has become a pandemic in March that has heavily hit many parts of the world, ranging from Europe, Iran, to the United States, leading media outlets in North America such as the NYT, the WSJ, and CNN have published thousands of articles, many of which either question China’s recovery or criticize China’s initial mishandling of the coronavirus outbreak. After qualitatively reading through the NYT’s reports on the COVID-19 outbreak, we identified two recurrent frames in its coverage, namely “the novel coronavirus is a deadly Chinese coronavirus” (frame 1) and “the Chinese government is to blame for the spread of COVID-19” (frame 2). In this essay, we argue that these frames contribute to the stigmatization of and violence against the Chinese community and heightened distrust in the Chinese government’s handling of an emergent epidemic despite its progress after the SARS outbreak.

Our framing analysis is based on a content analysis of the NYT’s coverage of COVID-19 between January 6, 2020 and April 5, 2020. We selected the NYT for our case study because it is a leading newspaper facing a wave of criticism from the Chinese government over its coverage of COVID-19. Left-leaning as it is listed on the latest Interactive Media Bias Chart, its coverage is depicted by Chinese state media outlets as misleading and biased and also criticized by the Chinese government as part of the United States’ campaign to impose ideological prejudice and political oppression on China. On March 18, 2020, Beijing announced the expulsion of American journalists working for three U.S. newspapers, including the NYT, as a countermeasure against restrictive measures on Chinese media agencies in the United States. Since the NYT has extensively covered COVID-19 and attracted controversy from the Chinese government, we decided to conduct a framing analysis of this outlet’s coronavirus coverage. All English-language news stories in this study were selected from the LexisNexis database using the words “China” and “coronavirus” as keywords, January 6, 2020 to April 5, 2020 as the timeline, and the NYT as the source. The search yielded 2,452 relevant articles.

Entman (1993, 52) argues that to frame an issue is to “select some aspects of a perceived reality…in such a way as to promote a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation, and/or treatment recommendation for the item described.” He (2004, 5) further argues that framing involves “selecting and highlighting some facets of events or issues, and making connections among them so as to promote a particular interpretation, evaluation, and or solution.” Although media frames persist over time, “when covering a rapidly changing crisis, media are likely to follow these changes and present varying frames as events unfold” (Li 2007, 673). Thus, we are interested in examining how the NYT has prioritized some aspects of the COVID-19 outbreak over others and how its framing has changed as the COVID-19 outbreak evolved into a pandemic in which the United States is currently leading global lists with respect to confirmed coronavirus cases.

Frame One: The Novel Coronavirus is a Deadly Chinese Coronavirus

How is the novel coronavirus defined by the NYT? Before February 11, 2020, the day the WHO (2020a) introduced the term “COVID-19” for the novel coronavirus, the NYT reporters used such controversial terms as “Wuhan virus” (in 13 articles), “Wuhan coronavirus” (in 67 articles), “Wuhan pneumonia” (in 9 articles), “China virus” (in 6 articles), and “Chinese coronavirus” (in 5 articles) to name the “mysterious” coronavirus that first broke out in Wuhan, China in December, 2019. With the stigmatization of COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus” or “Wuhan virus,” harmful behavior can be triggered. Attaching locations or ethnicity to the novel coronavirus disease prompts “public stigmatization among specific populations, and the rise of harmful stereotypes,” as the WHO (2020b) reported. In several instances, Asian Americans and Asians, especially Chinese, were assailed by strangers on the street across the United States who accused them of being purported sources of the “Chinese virus” or “Wuhan virus.” The increased anti-China and anti-Asian prejudices over the course of the coronavirus outbreak echo the “Yellow Peril” hysteria of the late 19th and early 20th centuries and “the American tradition of conflating immigration and infection” (Berard 2020). The Yellow Peril hysteria was reignited by the fear of an “awakened” China and by a large influx of Chinese immigrants, “to whom immoral and savage characteristics were often imputed” (Heale 2009, 21). Americans accused the Chinese community of spreading infections and diseases resulting from their “barbarian lifestyles” and “hazardous habits” (Chang 2003). Chinese immigrants were depicted as “half-human, half-devil, rat-eating, rag-wearing, law-ignoring, Christian-civilization-hating, opium-smoking, labor-degrading, entrail-sucking Celestials” (Chang 2003). The “Yellow Peril” hysteria, or specifically the long-standing anti-Chinese sentiment in the United States, has been stirred up by mainstream media to some extent by directly or indirectly attaching geography to the novel coronavirus.

Given that “having a name matters to prevent the use of other names that can be inaccurate or stigmatizing” (The World Health Organization 2020a), the NYT has adopted “COVID-19” for its coronavirus coverage after the WHO’s announcement of the formal name for the virus on February 11 (1493 hits of “COVID-19”). Between February 11 and April 5, the above-mentioned controversial terms occurred mainly in the newspaper’s reports and analyses of their use by President Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and “the China hawks – mostly conservative Republicans” (Edmondson 2020). The NYT has interpreted the administration’s use of such controversial terms as an attempt to “hold Beijing responsible for the crippling coronavirus pandemic” (Wong and Swanson 2020). Additionally, the NYT has criticized the use of such politically charged terms by pointing out its consequences, including anti-China sentiment, xenophobia, and most importantly increased tensions between China and the United States, which “national security and public health experts fear that the two world powers are heading into a new Cold War that could seriously undermine joint efforts to quash the virus and salvage the global economy” (Crowley, Wong, and Jakes 2020). By doing so, the NYT has not only outlined the possible agenda behind the U.S. government’s use of controversial terms such as “Chinese virus” and “Wuhan virus,” but also made up for its initial mistake of attaching geography to the novel coronavirus.

President Donald J. Trump takes questions from the press during a coronavirus update briefing Saturday, April 18, 2020, in the James S. Brady White House Press Briefing Room. (Official White House Photo by Tia Dufour)

Although the NYT has been doing a great job in offering free access to the latest updates of COVID-19 even to non-subscribers when half of the world’s population is on lockdown, we found that it has selected and highlighted some facets of the virus’s effects to make China appear unreliable. In the NYT reports on the rapidly growing number of confirmed cases and deaths in badly affected countries like Italy, Spain, Iran, and the United States, China has been used as a threshold, and it is not unusual to read such lines as “Italy — by itself — passed China in reported deaths” and “The United States’ coronavirus death toll has moved past China’s official count, a bleak milestone.” The problem with such comparisons is that they fuel the discussion on whether China is concealing the actual numbers of coronavirus cases and fatalities and whether China’s coronavirus containment can be trusted. Since we are still in the middle of the pandemic, it is too early to determine whether China has provided accurate data. The actual numbers will be known after the Chinese government completes its ongoing epidemiological investigation under international scrutiny, during which it will revise the numbers of confirmed COVID-19 cases and fatalities by removing double-counted cases and filling in missed cases (Xinhua Net 2020).

It is noteworthy that “it is not unusual in epidemics for case and fatality numbers to be revised after authorities carry out retrospective re-testing or reclassify the cause of infection or death” (Chen and Goh 2020). Despite the doubts cast by the NYT on the actual effects of COVID-19 on public health in China, the decline of cases across China is real, which is evidenced by “the steep decline in fever clinic visits, the opening up of treatment beds as cured patients are discharged, and the challenges to recruiting new patients for clinical trials” (The World Health Organization 2020c, 17). However, since the COVID-19 outbreak is still developing, it is too early to judge whether China has fully contained the spread of COVID-19. More importantly, “This is a time for solidarity, collaboration and mutual support,” as Cui Tiankai, the Chinese ambassador to the United States, wrote in a NYT op-ed article on April 5. By switching the naming of the novel coronavirus and criticizing the political use of such controversial terms as “Chinese virus” and “Wuhan virus,” the NYT dropped the frame “the novel coronavirus is a deadly Chinese coronavirus,” thereby avoiding further stigmatization of the Chinese community.

Frame Two: The Chinese Government Is to Blame for the Spread of COVID-19

Another recurrent frame in the NYT’s coverage of COVID-19 is that the Chinese government is to blame for the spread of COVID-19. After qualitatively reading through the newspaper’s coverage of COVID-19, we found three recurrent themes in its reports on the causes of the spread of COVID-19, namely the silencing of the so-called whistleblower Dr. Li Wenliang (111 hits), China’s coronavirus cover-up (127 hits), and comparisons to the SARS crisis in 2003 (475 hits). The death of Dr. Li has been used as a cautionary tale by the NYT’s reporters and columnists to exemplify what they call the “Chinese government’s mishandling of the outbreak in early December.” However, some facts are obscured and filtered when its reporters talk about Dr. Li. They depict Dr. Li as a whistleblower doctor reprimanded for warning his acquaintances of an infectious virus in December, but little attention is given to the fact that he did not mean to be a whistleblower when he sent private Wechat messages on December 30, 2019 to warn his medical school classmates of a mysterious virus that surfaced in Wuhan (Figure 1). In fact, he meant only to remind them to protect themselves and their family members from a SARS-like infection and he even asked them not to spread his messages to outsiders. Moreover, the NYT has downplayed the fact that China’s top supervisory body sent an investigation team to Wuhan on February 7 following Dr. Li’s death, which resulted in Wuhan police’s revoking of the reprimand order against Dr. Li and apology to his family on March 19 (Jia 2020).

Screenshots of Dr Li Wenliang’s private Wechat Messages on December 30, 2019. Health Analytics Asia, accessed April 15, 2020.

Using Dr. Li as a seemingly persuasive example to demonstrate the flaws in the Chinese government’s initial response to a potential “SARS-like” outbreak, the NYT has created a picture of China facing a repeat of the SARS epidemic, which according to its commentator Yanzhong Huang resulted from “a combination of inaction, denial and deception” and the Chinese government’s “top-down, state-dominated approach in disease surveillance, reporting and response.” A similar interpretation can be found in the NYT’s coverage of the SARS outbreak in 2003. In a study on Chinese and U.S. news outlets’ framing of SARS, including the NYT, the authors concluded that U.S. newspapers “blamed the Chinese leaders for the spread of SARS” (Luther and Zhou 2005, 866). In an array of articles published by the NYT between April and May 2003, we found that the Chinese government was heavily criticized for not being transparent about the number of infected cases. In an op-ed article, Beijing’s mishandling of the outbreak was described as “catastrophic,” and the author attributed it to “China’s ossified political system,” where “economic and health statistics […] have long been manipulated for political purposes.

Despite its initial denial and mishandling of the SARS crisis, China did make an effective effort to curb the SARS outbreak. According to Dr Shigeru Omi, Regional Director for the WHO Western Pacific (2006), as the number of infected cases continued to grow and concerns over SARS heightened both in China and in the international community in April 2003, “China went on to make a major contribution to the global fight against SARS through its aggressive control measures and prompt reporting on the situation in the country” (IX). On April 20, 2003, the Chinese government declared a “people’s war” against SARS, demonstrating its “strong political commitment to containing SARS” (Whaley and Mansoor 2006, 43). Afterwards, “a highly effective monitoring and reporting system was materialized almost at once, a community-based surveillance and disease-control system was installed, and most amazingly, a 1,000-bed isolation hospital went up in little more than a week” (Doberstyn 2006, 247). Despite its controversial image throughout the West, the people’s surveillance developed by China and its mobilization of the entire population, as Balasegaram and Schnur (2006) argue, helped China “rapidly identify the chains of transmission and isolation the cases” and brought “a situation that appeared to be rapidly growing out control” to heel within two months (82).

Apart from its effective measures to contain the SARS outbreak, China has stepped up prevention and control measures since the SARS outbreak. Afterwards, “China has made remarkable progress in responding effectively to disease outbreaks” (Nkengasong 2020, 310). Specifically, “the government prioritized the strengthening of the CDC [Center for Disease Control] systems, improving public health surveillance and laboratory systems, as well as the workforce-development program, through the Field Epidemiology Training Program” (Nkengasong 2020, 311). In The Lancet Infectious Diseases, Katherine and Hall (2017) point out that to address “substantial weakness in China’s national public health surveillance system,” which surfaced in the SARS outbreak, China has reformed its CDC system, along with “a ten-fold increase in public health funding from 2003 to 2012, and establishment of the largest web-based communicable diseases reporting system in the world” (675). The improvements of China’s CDC system between 2002 and 2012 contributed to its quicker responses to emergent epidemics, with the overall completeness of public health services significantly increasing from 47.4% in 2002 to 76.6% in 2012 (Li et al. 2016). Moreover, the strengthening of prevention and control measures in the post-SARS era, as Yang and his colleagues (2017) argue, led to steady infection rates in China. Their observational study found that the overall annual incidence of infectious diseases in China leveled off after 2009. These scientific sources of data refute the argument that China has remained the same since the SARS outbreak in terms of its responses to emergent epidemics.

In fact, China’s response to the novel coronavirus outbreak “stands in stark contrast to its response to the 2002 SARS outbreak response” (Nkengasong 2020, 310). Specifically,

“First, a notable change in public-health political posture has allowed China to admit, very early on, the existence of a novel coronavirus; in response to the 2002 SARS outbreak, the Chinese government did not report the abnormal new infection to the World Health Organization until 4 months after the first case was reported. Second, the government was decisive in closing the sea food market in Wuhan, borrowing lessons from the 2002 SARS outbreak… Third, the rapid development of a national and international consortium helped in the swift analysis of the virus and in making the sequences publicly available within a few days. In contrast, the first laboratory sequences suggesting that a new coronavirus was the cause of SARS were reported on 24 March 2003, 5 months after the first cases were recognized in November 2002.”

(Nkengasong 2020, 310-1)

In the Report of the WHO-China Joint Mission on Coronavirus Disease 2019, the WHO (2020c) admits that “China’s bold approach to contain the rapid spread of this new respiratory pathogen has changed the course of a rapidly escalating and deadly epidemic” (17). China’s “extraordinary measures” (Word Health Organization 2020d) to quell the coronavirus outbreak, as the WHO Director-General commented, bought time for the rest of the world.

Although China has reformed its public health system after the SARS epidemic and has taken swift and decisive measures to contain the COVID-19 outbreak, media outlets such as the NYT have continued to depict the COVID-19 outbreak as a repetition of the SARS epidemic and to interpret China’s early mishandling of the break as the culprit of the ongoing pandemic in the world. Providing that highlighting or obscuring certain aspects of “the information presented to the public will change the way that they view an issue” (Soroka et al. 2012, 206), framing COVID-19 in such a way generates finger-pointing and propels the US-China coronavirus blame game. In a Harris Poll conducted between March 14, 2020 and April 5, 2020, 78% of Republican respondents and 40% of Democratic respondents blamed the Chinese government for the spread of coronavirus in the United States, while 22% of Republican respondents and 60% of Democratic respondents blamed the U.S. government. Moreover, 90% of Republican respondents and 67% of Democratic respondents believed the Chinese government was responsible for the spread of the coronavirus.

Although this essay is not a comprehensive study of the NYT’s overall coronavirus coverage, we showed that some of its reports were indicative of allusions to anti-Chinese sentiments and the 1880s “Yellow Peril” rhetoric. This led to stigmatization of the Chinese community and distrust in the Chinese government’s handling of the COVID-19 outbreak despite its progress since the SARS outbreak. Considering that many of us are unaware of the media’s framing of COVID-19 and its influence on how we perceive the novel coronavirus, the words of historian and philosopher Prof. Yuval Noah Harari are more important than ever: “In this moment of crisis, the crucial struggle takes place within humanity itself. If this epidemic results in greater disunity and mistrust among humans, it will be the virus’s greatest victory. When humans squabble – viruses double. In contrast, if the epidemic results in closer global cooperation, it will be a victory not only against the coronavirus, but against all future pathogens.” 

About the authors:

Shasha Lin is a doctoral candidate at HCA. Her project focuses on affirmative action in higher education and its impact on three large Asian American groups, namely Chinese, Filipino, and Vietnamese Americans. She is interested in diversity and racial/ethnic issues in America, especially within the Asian American community.  

Hien-Le Pham is a doctoral candidate at HCA. Her PhD project analyzes the U.S. involvement in the territorial disputes in the South China Sea and East China Sea with a focus on Sino-American rivalry and how the U.S. commits to its traditional role as a global leader. Her research interests include, but are not limited to U.S. diplomatic history, the Vietnam War and U.S. legal history.

Get in touch with Le over her Facebook page where she is sharing her academic and life experience in Germany with Vietnamese young readers.


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