Is Media Coverage of China Ideologically Biased?
by Robert Q. Watson
After Vice President Gore’s visit to China in 1997, a New York Times editorial observed that “Mr. Gore seemed to go out of his way to praise a significant advance in democracy’ that few others have been able to detect.” Times columnist Thomas Friedman's views mirrored the mainstream media’s view of the PRC. “China’s going to have a free press,” he asserted. “Globalization will drive it.” During both Bush’s and Barack Obama’s presidencies, the number of negative articles on Beijing’s distressing human rights record grew. In a 2014 retrospective, the New York Times conceded that its reporting had been too upbeat regarding political reform in the PRC. I believe the prior media bias persisted and the universally condemned invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, was a pivot event to delineate that persistent bias.
I began to wonder. Does ideologically biased media coverage create blind spots in public opinion with potential competitors like China? Without unbiased press coverage of China, how will the public know about our foreign policy issues with a competitor?
In early 2000, the United States and other liberal democracies opened their doors to China, believing commerce would sway the Chinese communist system to change. By welcoming Beijing into the post-Cold War international system, American policymakers hoped to persuade China’s leaders that their interests lay in preserving the existing western order. By adapting to the global system’s rules and adopting its values, China would rather co-exist than seek to modify or overthrow it.
“By joining the WTO, China is not simply agreeing to import more of our products; it is agreeing to import one of democracy’s most cherished values, economic freedom,” President Clinton said in the Spring of 2000. “When individuals have the power not just to dream, but to realize their dreams, they will demand a greater say.”
The President linked China’s WTO membership to the democratic vision of President Woodrow Wilson, who said of “a world full of free markets, free elections, and free peoples working together.”
The political left in America welcomed Beijing into the US-dominated, post-Cold War international system. They sought to “own” the issue and defend their decision to “open up” to communist Chinese. On February 23rd, the Russian invasion of Ukraine commenced. Consider an unprovoked act of aggression by Russia on a neighbor; China refused to condemn the invasion opting to remain an economic and ideological ally. Given the worldwide condemnation of the Kremlin, China's choice to side with Russia leads me to two research questions. How is the media covering China post the Russian invasion of Ukraine in frequency and tone? Is the press ideologically sympathetic or biased in its coverage of China? My research found that in the first four months of 2022, media-biased reporting on China was reflective of known ideological leanings on America’s political right and left. Further, American media occupying the ideological center became more extreme than the nation.
Hypotheses: I contend (expect) that the American media’s coverage of China is bias along ideological lines despite the ongoing repression of Hong Kong and the Uygurs and China’s support for the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Using Russia’s invasion as a chronological breakpoint, I anticipate a bias to exist before and after the war’s beginning. Based upon the ideological left's recent past pushing more engagement and acceptance of China, I expect media sites that are left or left-leaning to be biased in reporting favoring China. The ideological right will rhetorically hammer China on human rights abuses and its communist past, while the left remains apologetic.
Most Americans depend heavily on the mass media for information about international affairs. Researchers show that exposure to news coverage can significantly influence public opinion toward foreign nations. Those perceptions affect the nature of personal interactions, swaying mass attitudes about foreign policy and the practice of public diplomacy.
To search for media bias, I will examine four (4) media sources, three domestic (CNN, Wall Street Journal & Fox News) and one international (The Financial Times), representing the ideological right, center, and left. Using The Financial Times as a global baseline and source of the tone codebook for my research, I will be able to assess the WSJ’s reporting (ideological center) more fully. Analyzing stories from my four media sources, I will search for skew in coverage of China before and after Russia invades Ukraine based on frequency and tone.
Additionally, I believe it is important to take the public pulse on China through Pew Research and Gallup's long-running surveys on favorability. Public opinion polling will further solidify exactly where the ideological center is in America to compare my tone results from The Financial Times and WSJ.
Research Design and data collection: First and foremost, I aggregated Allsides.com and Ad Fontes Media bias modeling to establish the ideological right, left, and center in America. See graphics #1, #2, and #3 below. Specifically, in Graph #2, I adapted Ad Fontes Media bias graph cluttered with every media company to pinpoint the four publishers I wished to analyze. It is important to note that according to Ad Fortes Media, neither FT nor WSJ occupied the dead center of the assessed spectrum. Also, CNN and Fox News were not proportionately dispersed from the Ad Fontes ideological center. (see graphic #2)
Aggregating in AllSides Media bias chart is a little bit more cut and dry. Their methodology pigeonholes the media ideology into nice and neat categories from left to leaning to left, center, leaning right, and right. My thesis put CNN at the left, WSJ at the center, and FOX News at the right bare out, according to AllSides. (see graphic #3)
With my ideological camps established, I opted to examine the headlines of stories using the print editions of the Wall Street Journal and The Financial Times as my tonal cookbook or codebook. For observers, human language use often appears to be a function of utility and context. One of the more striking revelations is that people use positive words more frequently than negative words. Researchers have established the word fear, for example, has the highest negative association. I found the word “fear” used numerous times in my research.
Leaning on my understanding of the English language and tone along with my 25 year-old-son Jordan, a senior at Texas A&M University, to reduce intercoder reliability, I began to examine article headlines in 5,000 pages of FT and WSJ. My data set began on January 1, 2022, and went through April 30, 2022. As a reminder, the Russian invasion of Ukraine began on February 23, 2022. I arrived at the cookbook in graphic #4 below from this timeframe. Please note the abundance of negative words versus positive ones in the tonal cookbook.
After establishing my cookbook using the FT and WSJ, I examined CNN.com and Fox.com article headlines, recording the frequency of the stories, not opinion pieces about China, and the tone of the headline as either positive or negative, or neutral without regard to the degree.
As a matter of full disclosure, I have paid subscriptions to the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times. I don’t have any relationship with FoxNew.com or CNN.com, nor credentials to either site.
Lastly, I wanted to establish a baseline for public opinion by aggregating Pew Research and Gallup’s long-running public opinion polling on China. I plotted the two polls in Graphic #5 below. The Pew and Gallup surveys have been highly correlated over the last decade.
Results: To establish the tonal cookbook, I examined 5,000 headlines across the first four months of 2022. Then I canvased 6,000 headlines across CNN and FOX news websites for frequency and tone, and the data set was robust. The table below details the frequency of stories about China. Graphic #6, below, gives us a bar chart of the tabled data.
From a frequency standpoint, each outlet covered China with at least an average of one story a day. Oddly, CNN and FOX both had 143 stories over the collection period of four months. As I anticipated, coverage of China increased after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The red bar in graphic #6 above is February, marking the war's start. Immediately, coverage increased across all four publishers. Please note the dramatic drop in CNN coverage from January to February, then slow pick-up afterward. Also, FOX News coverage dramatically spiked in March.
The tone of reporting starts with positive data collected and displayed in the table below and Graphic #7. Looking at the results in aggregate, it is apparent that FOX and CNN need to be more
consistent with FT and WSJ reporting during the period. In graphic #7, the lopsided reporting is more prominent. FT’s positive reporting stayed constant, while all 3 US media outlets showed a drop in positive reporting after Russia’s invasion, consistent with international outrage.
The negative tone of reporting resulted in the data collected and displayed in the table below and Graphic #8. Looking at the results in aggregate, it is apparent that FOX and CNN are
not consistent with FT and WSJ reporting during the period. In graphic #8, the lopsided reporting is more pronounced. It is important to note that FT and WSJ incrementally became more negative after the Russian invasion in February, in line with the negative international public opinions. From graphic #8, CNN appears to be out of step with centrist media, while FOX mirrors FT and WSJ.
The tone of reporting moves on neutral data collected and displayed in the table below and Graphic #9. Looking at the results in aggregate, it is apparent that FOX and CNN are not
consistent with FT and WSJ reporting during the period. In graphic #9, the lopsided reporting is more prominent. It is important to note that CNN’s neutral reporting dropped after the invasion. At the same time, FOX News reporting became more neutral.
Examining the positive, negative, and neutral tone graphs, the data for my small sample period indicated that despite China’s failure to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, CNN remains favorably disposed to report positively on China. At the same time, FOX hides its more negative bias by using neutral as positive. Regarding China, ideology appears to affect the tone of reporting.
To better understand the centrist position in America versus the left and right, I choose to overlay the Pew Research and Gallup survey of public opinion on China conducted from 2005 to 2022 in the table and chart below. In their September 2022 poll (82% unfavorable), Pew suggested that “a large majority of Americans see China unfavorably amid concerns about China’s policies on human rights, its partnership with Russia, and other factors.” Gallup has China’s unfavorable rating at 79% in their latest poll in February 2022.
Pew Research Versus Gallup Polling on the Favorability of China 2005-2022
Overlaying a positive aggregate of Pew at 16% and Gallup at 20% at 18% (Graphic #11 below), we can assess that CNN’s reporting on China remains slightly above the public opinion threshold and FOX far below. FOX’s negative bias becomes more pronounced in this comparison, with virtually no positive stories. CNN's reporting is exposed in graphic #11 below, which articulates a negative tone versus the Pew/Gallup aggregate. Compared and contrasted against the Pew/Gallups aggregates, CNN and FOX are seen as two opposites in reporting which is consistent with their suggested bias by Ad Fontes and Allsides’ bias indicators and my original hypothesis.
Bias is the tendency to lean towards or against a hypothetical center. The direction in which media leans can be influenced by factors such as reporters' and editors' backgrounds, culture, and personal experiences. Reporters and editors are human beings subject to influence. Known bias is called explicit bias, but an unconscious bias can also exist.
Media bias is the slant or perceived bias of journalists and news organizations in mass media. Widespread bias, like that caused by the international outrage over the Ukraine invasion, impacts the standard of journalism rather than bias from the perspective of one journalist or article. Media bias can affect the selected events and stories published, the perspective from which they’re written, and the language chosen to tell the story.
My research found pronounced bias in the CNN and FOX News organizations concerning reporting on China. Using the start of the Russia-Ukraine war as a pivot issue revealed bias and changing reporting around the conflict even though China was not an overt participant. China’s lack of condemnation and explicit support for Russia triggered a change in reporting on all four media organizations. The bias pinpointed was consistent with each organization’s ideological stances as suggested by Ad Fontes and Allsides’ bias charting.
Confirming a known ideology bias is not a revelation. America’s political left owning an issue involving communists should not surprise a soul. The troubling reveal of my research is that reporting on a foreign power widely considered a competitor or adversary is skewed in either direction. China’s challenge to our national interests and/or national security is a challenge for all Americans, regardless of party affiliation or ideological bend.
CNN and FOX’s highly skewed media presentation has transformed news about China into propaganda. These two media outlets deliberately painted a certain picture of China to achieve their desired outcome regardless of any journalistic integrity or loyalty to their country. It is important to close with the observation that after the onset of the Ukraine war, FT, WSJ, and FOX’s reporting on China is exceeding the negativity of public opinion, which will undoubtedly shape that opinion metric in the long run. My last takeaway from this research is the need for a decade's deeper look into the media’s coverage of China since the Clinton administration for the genesis of biased reporting.
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