Expert Commentary

Race to the bottom: Media marketization and increasing negativity toward the U.S. in China

2011 study in Political Communication examines trends in news stories in Chinese media and looks at underlying pressures driving these trends.

While Chinese media operate within a state-controlled system, there have been rising pressures to attract attention and gain market share. Prior research has found that Chinese media companies believe that news critical of the U.S. helps generate more attention, and this combination of market competition and a receptive audience has been theorized to shape coverage.

A 2011 study published in Political Communication, “Race to the Bottom: Media Marketization and Increasing Negativity Toward the United States in China,” analyzes news stories published in the People’s Daily — the official publication of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) — and the Beijing Evening News during 1999 and 2003.

Key points in the study include:

  • The Chinese media industry has seen deregulation and privatization over the past two decades. “From the early 2000s on, shares in print media groups have been publicly traded on the stock market and investment in media groups has been permitted.” The rise of new media organizations has put pressures on established news outlets.
  • Government authorities have different rules depending on the news topic: “Strictly sanctioned topics cannot be published in the paper, but only internally reported to relevant institutions within the Chinese political system. Sanctioned topics can be reported about, but need to be censored. And nonsanctioned topics can be written in any way the journalist likes.” Areas such as U.S. domestic politics or the invasion of Iraq are not considered sensitive, and the Chinese public seems to have a strong appetite for such news.
  • Both the People’s Daily and the Beijing Evening News seem to have evolved a strategy whereby news reporting about the U.S. tends to be more positive when topics are restricted by Propaganda authorities, but more negative when topics are unrestricted. In doing so, both newspapers can simultaneously satisfy demands by Propaganda officials to stand behind China’s policy toward the U.S. while also satisfying perceived consumer demands. Especially the People’s Daily appears to make up for increased negativity when covering nonsanctioned topics by reporting even more positively than before on sanctioned topics.”
  • Overall, the study’s results confirm that the two newspapers’ coverage of the United States has become more negative over time. “This rise in negativity is primarily driven by more frequent reporting of nonsanctioned topics, especially in the People’s Daily, which may have experienced more competitive pressure than the Beijing Evening News in 2003.”

The study’s author concludes, “Changes in news reporting about the United States in the People’s Daily and Beijing Evening News demonstrate that increased competition within a marketized media environment can, over time, change the dominant message transmitted by a tightly controlled state media…. By increasing reporting on nonsanctioned topics, even the mouthpiece of the CCP central leadership adjusted its position over time to accommodate audiences and increase negative news.”

Tags: China, news

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