January 24, 2011

The U.S. Media on China

% of Newshole
Sichuan Earthquake May 12-18, 2008 13
Olympic Protests Apr 7-13, 2008 7
Sichuan Earthquake May 19-25, 2008 5
Tibet Protests Mar 17-23, 2008 5
Ethnic Clashes Jul 6-12, 2009 4

1st – Tainted imports is the No. 1 story subject involving China in the last few years

On January 18, President Hu Jintao of China arrived in the U.S. for a four-day visit—the highlight being a lavish black-tie dinner at the White House. It was Obama’s third state dinner, but because of China’s role as an economic power and critical role in foreign affairs, political analysts have called it the most important one of his presidency thus far.

When China has made news, what is it Americans are learning about?

A PEJ examination of news coverage of China since 1997 reveals two patterns. In general, larger economic issues involving trade and economic policy with China tend to be overshadowed by different issues—including tainted imports and disasters. And in any given week, ongoing economic issues are even less visible in the news.

Over the last four years, the biggest story subject involving China has focused on problems with imported products, including tainted pet food and lead paint in children’s toys. According to PEJ’s News Coverage Index, almost a quarter (21%) of the coverage has focused these issues. The second biggest subject (14%) was the May 2008 earthquake that rocked the Chinese province of Sichuan—killing as many as 70,000 and injuring nearly 400,000. Relations with Tibet (6%) are also prominent. The subject of trade and business ranks third (12%) among all the coverage involving China since January 1997, when PEJ began its content analysis.

In any given week, economic policy is even less prominent.

The biggest one week China story was the Sichuan earthquake which accounted for 13% of the newshole the week of May 12-18, 2008. The following week (May 19-25), attention remained relatively high at 5%, making it the third-biggest China story in any week since January 2007.

Two of the other top five weekly stories focused on violence and political unrest in China.

In May 2008, Tibetans opposed to Chinese rule of their region staged demonstrations. But the rallies quickly turned hostile as the Chinese government violently cracked down on demonstrators. The incident accounted for 5% of the news coverage studied the week of March 17-23, 2008 making it the fourth-most covered China story.

The July 2009 Ethnic clashes in western China, between the Han Chinese majority and the Muslim Uighur minority, is the No. 5 China story. Attention to the violence—which killed more than 180 people—accounted for at 4% of the newshole the week of July 6-12, 2009.

Only one story that involved relations between U.S. and China was among the top weekly stories of the last four years, and it wasn’t about diplomacy or public policy. It came as the 2008 Beijing Olympics neared. Protestors in Paris and San Francisco made their opposition to the rule of Tibet and human rights violations known as the Olympic torch traveled through those cities the week of April 7-13, 2008. That week, attention to the protests filled 7% of the media newshole, which made it the second-biggest story in any week.