Media reporting of the spread of the coronavirus in China and elsewhere has underlined their role in normalising a familiar Western narrative of a dreadful threat from outside. Much of the coverage, particularly in Western news media, has framed the issue in the language of concern, anxiety, and plain fear. Inevitably, it is accompanied by imagery of lockdowns, seclusion, isolation, and containment – a familiar and venerable trope of the non-Western world in perpetual crisis, and one, of course, that threatens ‘the West’.
In this case, the dangers to the modern Western world are not only caused by China’s backward health systems, authoritarianism, population explosion, strict controls, and the Chinese state’s slow response to the health situation, but also by all Chinese, irrespective of where they are. What we easily miss is how such representations serve to imagine the West as advanced, stable, safe, and anti-authoritarian, which proves singularly convenient.
Media coverage is eerily reminiscent of the ‘migration crisis’ in the last decade and many others before it. Reporting of the spread of the coronavirus inside and outside China since early January has helped stoke a wave of anti-China sentiment around the globe, exacerbated by conspiracy theories, the dissemination of fake news in digital platforms, and the lack of information from the cordoned-off zone around China’s central city of Wuhan, where the outbreak began.
Closer scrutiny shows that misinformation about the coronavirus has also spread widely through Chinese social networks.
This has prompted China’s central propaganda department to announce China would dispatch more than 300 journalists to report on the disease to contain ‘fake news’ and ‘control’ information. China’s top cybersecurity regulator warned Chinese websites that they had violated a law barring online news outlets from publishing original material. At the same time, social media platforms such as Facebook announced it would remove content with false claims. However, interestingly, other platforms such as YouTube, Twitter and Reddit, say that they do not consider inaccurate information about health as violating their policies.
The sociologist Stanley Cohen, writing in the 1970s, proposed the term ‘moral panic’ to describe media’s role in constructing crisis narratives about threats, real and imagined, that can pose dangers to the general public. The theory has been prominent in communications and sociological research, because it helped highlight the dynamics between media and power and to explain, at least normatively, how crisis narratives are usually underpinned by ideologies intent on maintaining the status quo.
The speed, spread and potential threat of the virus and the genuine worries cannot be discounted.
The panic, however, conveniently permits all sorts of other agendas. Within China, we might ask, what opportunities does this offer for furthering control? Outside, how might events be used to create anxiety and be used to mediate and normalise structural racism and othering? It is too early to provide a detailed analysis of the imagery of crisis and its concomitant (mis)representation. But does it follow that we cannot start to engage in critically reflecting on media’s historical and contemporary role in understanding the world?
While the media are not all-powerful, what actually do we know about what is happening regarding the coronavirus except through the media? What do Western-centric ‘media worlds’ tell us about ‘ordinary people’ except as carefully edited snippets of vox pop? These are the kind of questions we are asking.
Dr Dina Matar is Reader in Arab Media and Political Communication, and Head of the School of Interdisciplinary Studies.
This post was originally published on the Centre for Global Media and Communications blog.
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