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Media impact on anti-Asian attitudes during COVID-19

Did COVID-19 exacerbate anti-Asian racism in the US, linked to media exposure and historical biases? Combatting such biases necessitates media scrutiny.

This article has been written by third-party authors independent of The Academic. This article does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editors or management of The Academic, and solely reflects the opinions of the article’s authors.

In recent years, there has been a rise in racist attacks against Asians in the United States, partially linked to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Trump administration is often held responsible for exacerbating this hostility with its anti-Asian rhetoric during the early stages of the pandemic. However, this negative perception of Asians is not a novel phenomenon; it traces back to the arrival of Chinese immigrants in the 1850s. Furthermore, during the recent pandemic, conspiracy theories speculating on China’s involvement in creating the virus also fostered anti-Asian sentiments. These notions gained traction on conservative news channels and further entrenched negative views of Asians among Americans.

Both traditional news media and social media have played significant roles in perpetuating anti-Asian hostility during the pandemic. The dissemination of pandemic-related news through certain media outlets contributed to the perception of Asians as potential carriers of the virus. Consequently, some Americans started viewing Asian immigrants differently, with a portion of them believing that Asians residing in the United States are more loyal to their home countries. This study, published in the Asian Journal of Communication, aims to investigate the potential influence of exposure to pandemic-related news on specific media platforms on developing negative attitudes toward Asian Americans. We gathered online survey data from 913 White Americans in 2021 to achieve this.

Media exposure and racial stigmatization

Our findings revealed a direct correlation between increased exposure to Fox News and social media and higher levels of anti-Asian stigmatization. In contrast, no such association was observed with exposure to traditional news media outlets, such as national TV news, newspapers, and public broadcasting. One possible explanation for this disparity could be that traditional news sources presented pandemic-related information more impartially than Fox News.

Although the traditional news media provided critical coverage of Trump’s efforts to attribute blame to China for the pandemic, doing so in a contextual manner, Fox News predominantly echoed these accusations while also employing racist terminology to describe the virus. This contrast in reporting style could significantly contribute to differing attitudes towards Asians.

The role of social media in promoting anti-Asian stigmatization was notable, as it facilitated the dissemination of misinformation, conspiracy theories, and racist depictions of the coronavirus. The absence of factual counterbalance on social media platforms contributed to heightened anti-Asian stigmatization, particularly among frequent users. Interestingly, our findings indicated that exposure to CNN was linked to lower levels of anti-Asian stigmatization. This suggests that the balanced approach of pandemic-related news on CNN potentially discouraged the attribution of blame to China or the Chinese people for the pandemic.

Credit. Midjourney

Migrant deservingness

In the next stage of our analysis, we established a link between anti-Asian stigmatization and public perceptions of migrant deservingness. These perceptions assess the willingness to grant rights and entitlements to specific individuals or groups, in this case, Asians, based on various migrant characteristics such as religion, ethnicity, and reasons for migration. Our investigation revealed that individuals holding negative views about Asians during the pandemic were more inclined to believe that Asian immigrants should conform culturally and religiously to the American way of life. Essentially, they expected Asian immigrants to adopt the same customs and traditions.

These findings align with a 2020 Pew survey, which indicated that a majority of Americans believe immigrants should be able to speak the nation’s dominant language and share its customs and traditions. The prevalence of anti-Asian rhetoric in pandemic-related news and social media often centred on aspects of Asian culture, potentially reinforcing the association between racial stigmatization and this specific aspect of migrant deservingness.

Perceptions of entry criteria and giving back

Individuals who attributed blame to Asians for the pandemic were also more inclined to believe that only those who genuinely required assistance and would appreciate the opportunity should be allowed entry. Although such attitudes may be understandable among Americans who prioritize immigration to the United States to aid the disadvantaged, it became evident that Covid-related stigmatization heightened the perceived significance of these criteria specifically for Asian migrants.

Interestingly, the notion that Asian immigrants should “give back” to their host country was not as strongly emphasized. It appears that pandemic-related news placed greater emphasis on the cultural aspects of Asian immigrants rather than their potential economic contributions. This trend could be attributed to the prevalence of anti-Asian rhetoric in the news media, which tended to focus on the ethnic and cultural traits of Asians. Consequently, Americans may have been more inclined to perceive Asian migrants through a cultural lens rather than an economic one.

Conclusions

Our study sheds light on the factors contributing to the escalation of anti-Asian attitudes during the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States. Specifically, exposure to certain media outlets, such as Fox News and social media, played a significant role in promoting anti-Asian stigmatization by disseminating misinformation and racist characterizations of the virus, thus influencing negative views toward Asians.

In contrast, traditional news media, including national TV news and newspapers, did not contribute to anti-Asian stigmatization. This divergence might be attributed to traditional news sources’ more balanced reporting and provision of contextual information, allowing audiences to understand the situation better.

Furthermore, our findings indicate that negative attitudes toward Asians during the pandemic influenced perceptions of Asian immigrants’ deservingness. Those holding negative views were more inclined to believe that Asian immigrants should adopt cultural and religious similarities with Americans and demonstrate gratitude for the opportunity to reside in the United States.

Overall, our study emphasizes the significance of media exposure in shaping public attitudes and perceptions toward different ethnic groups. It underscores the necessity to critically assess information from various media sources to combat racism and foster understanding and empathy within our society.

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Journal reference

Willnat, L., Shi, J., & De Coninck, D. (2023). Covid-19 and xenophobia in America: Media exposure, anti-Asian stigmatization, and deservingness of Asian immigrants. Asian Journal of Communication33(2), 87-104. https://doi.org/10.1080/01292986.2023.2176898

David De Coninck is a postdoctoral researcher and guest professor at the Centre for Sociological Research and the Institute for Media Studies at KU Leuven (Belgium), as well as at the Institute for Pedagogy, Education, and Socialization Research at LMU Munich (Germany). He obtained a PhD in Social Sciences from KU Leuven in 2021. His research interests encompass intergroup relations, migrant deservingness perceptions, and media effects. Currently, he serves as an Assistant Editor at the International Journal of Intercultural Relations.

Lars Willnat (Ph.D., Indiana University) holds the position of John Ben Snow Research Professor in the S. I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. His research primarily centres around journalism studies, political communication, and comparative survey research.

Jian Shi (Ph.D., Syracuse University) is a researcher at the Academy of Contemporary China and World Studies, China Foreign Languages Publishing Administration. The majority of her research falls within the realm of international communication and the effects of digital media.