A pandemic of hate: Social representations of COVID‐19 in the media – Ittefaq – – Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy


On March 20, 2020, then-President Donald Trump branded the coronavirus as the “Chinese Virus,” saying, “It’s [the label] not racist at all. No, not at all. It comes from China, that’s why. It comes from China. I want to be accurate” (Forgey, 2020, p. 2). Critics condemned the term and called it xenophobic and racially offensive, a term that potentially put Chinese and Asians in danger (Yam, 2020). This racialized and discriminatory response to COVID-19 disproportionately affected marginalized groups such as Chinese and Asians across the world (Devakumar et al., 2020; Elias et al., 2021).

Historically, infectious diseases have been linked with “othering” (White, 2020); this linkage recurred during the COVID-19 pandemic when the White House used racialized language linking the virus with Chinese people. White (2020) noted that “verbal and physical attacks on people of Asian descent and descriptions of the disease as the Chinese virus are all connected in this long legacy of associating epidemic disease threat and trade with the movement of Asian people” (p. 1251). The COVID-19 pandemic signaled the re-emergence of a form of politicized ethno-cultural racism aimed specifically at people from Asian backgrounds (Mansouri, 2020).

Previous studies have examined social representations of various groups during the COVID-19 pandemic (Fasanelli et al., 2020; Jaspal & Nerlich, 2020). For example, Martikainen and Sakki (2021) investigated representations and identities constructed through COVID-related photographs in Finnish newspapers. Their findings show that individuals were usually depicted as heroes, villains, or victims, and the photographs constructed an intergroup divide. They further found that the depiction of children was that of controlled pupils and carefree players which had limited connection to the spread of the virus. Young people were positioned as unruly party revelers who were a potential risk to the health of the community. Adults were depicted as authoritative experts, and responsible caretakers, which positioned them to bear the safety responsibility. de Rosa and Mannarini (2020) evaluated issues of “otherness” in the representations of the pandemic in the media. Their findings reveal that polarized polemical social representations of the disease can lead social groups to draw different conclusions about its threat and how they respond to it.

However, there is a paucity of literature examining social representations of COVID-19 in relation to race and racism against the Chinese community. Using a qualitative thematic analysis (QTA) approach, the authors of this study compare mainstream media coverage of the novel coronavirus in three elite English-language publications: China Daily, The New York Times, and The Guardian. Social representations theory (SRT) and its concept of cognitive polyphasia were used to analyze the data.

Earlier research has demonstrated how SRT focuses on the diversity of concepts of health and disease outbreaks and their social constructions in different contexts and cultures (Flick, 2000). During COVID-19, the Chinese community experienced a marked increase in documented xenophobic and hate crime incidents by individuals inflamed by Trump’s use of the terms “Chinese virus,” “Chinese flu,” “Wuhan virus,” “China virus,” and “Kung flu” (Stop AAPI Hate, 2020). Consequently, repeated use of these terms and labels by the media become part of mainstream discussions about COVID-19. Further, these terms were used in mainstream media outlets and shaped people’s perceptions about the origin and spread of the virus. Studies have shown that COVID-19-related hate crimes exacerbated fear of foreigners, national insecurity, anxiety, and mental health issues and are considered as “othering” behavior (Gover et al., 2020; Misra et al., 2020; Zhai & Du, 2020). The SRT guides scholars to establish and make sense of the link between infectious diseases with places, races, and animals in media texts particularly when mass media frequently frame the meaning of the disease in a certain context (Hoppe, 2018). The diseases also harm our globalized society emotionally, politically, socially, economically, and psychologically.

Cognitive polyphasia is “the use of different social representations in different situations depending on the communication partner(s) and the communicative context involved” (Provencher, 2011, p. 378). This concept that exists within SRT presumes that individuals have agency in their choices of the ideas and tools they use to interpret their worlds. This useful concept further expands our understanding of how racialized media representations of COVID-19 can result in common (and harmful) stereotyping of both the virus and its likely country of origin.

This article focuses on one important aspect of COVID-19’s transition from the public health domain to discussions of race, society, and the role of media. Through the interpretive lens of SRT and its concept of cognitive polyphasia, the authors offer a detailed qualitative analysis of media representations in the British, Chinese, and American press during 2020, the year in which COVID-19 disrupted socio-economic and political aspects of the world in a major way (Kanupriya, 2020). Moreover, this research strengthens our understanding of how several mainstream media outlets represented COVID-19 during the first year of its emergence—how they named and objectified the virus. Also, through frequent repetition in media certain social representations may become naturalized and taken for granted. However, it is important to note that naturalization process takes a longer time to manifest in society through media. Further, this study extends literature related to media stereotyping of racial minorities and the use of the cognitive polyphasia, and social representations theory in communication research. Finally, this research also enhances our understanding on how media construct and shape our opinion on disease outbreaks, especially during public health crises.

Racialization, hate, and discrimination during public health crises

Public health crises have historically been racialized (Elias et al., 2021). Previous literature reveals that infectious diseases that can spread easily across countries have been viewed as originating from out-groups or “others” (Idoiaga Mondragon et al., 2017). People may connect the risks and causes of a virus to the country of origin, which creates a strong emotional and political response in the public. For example, the Ebola outbreak has been linked with Africa, particularly with “other” people (i.e., Africans). This way of thinking allows people to detach themselves from the epidemic and consequently protect themselves and their identities (Idoiaga Mondragon et al., 2017). Similarly, the COVID-19 outbreak has been directly linked to China (Forgey, 2020). The current pandemic has resulted in an increase in hate crimes against Chinese and other Asians (Sastry & Ban, 2020). As COVID-19 is believed to have originated from Wuhan, China, Asians have faced racist attacks ranging from stereotyping and marginalizing to verbal attacks, microaggressions, and xenophobia (Tahmasbi et al., 2021; Wu et al., 2020). Such anti-Asian discrimination in the United States is not new: acts of physical violence, hate crimes, and racism can be traced back to the 1800s when Chinese and Asians first started to establish American Chinatowns (Reny & Barreto, 2020).

The racialization of infectious disease outbreaks has been previously studied (Nelkin & Gilman, 2020). Despite the World Health Organization’s efforts to discourage the use of place names, people, or animals for infectious diseases, the repeated use of stigmatizing monikers and discriminatory phrases such as “Spanish flu,” “Ebola virus,” and “Wuhan virus,” can be socially, politically, psychologically, and emotionally damaging and may signify how authorities and the public respond to a health crisis (Hoppe, 2018; Noel, 2020).

COVID-19 and media

Previous studies indicate that the media constitute an important source of societal information about social issues such as public health crises (Halim et al., 2020). The media can also shape public understanding of these crises. Therefore, the media help set the tone for engagement, both politically and socially, during unprecedented times (Jaspal & Nerlich, 2014). Research in this regard suggests that the media can represent ethnic minorities as outsiders by portraying them as “others” and creating disparities among communities (Roberto et al., 2020).

However, during public health crises, people expect the media to act in a socially responsible way to mitigate the spread of fear and discriminatory language. This demand could be expected to be strong during a health crisis of such magnitude as COVID-19. Similarly, people believe that the media should support public health officials and the government in the dissemination of information in a socially responsible way (Fung et al., 2014; Idoiaga Mondragon et al., 2017).

The COVID-19 outbreak has captivated media attention and public interest around the globe. Right-wing media channels in many Western countries have reported on this catastrophic event using misleading and racist labels such as “Chinese virus pandemonium,” a naming that inherently ties COVID-19 to a race and place. Headlines such as “China kids should stay home” exacerbate the risk of racial discrimination against individuals of Chinese descent (Wen et al., 2020). Such language could easily ostracize Chinese communities around the world; some members of the public can be made to believe that the Chinese are to be avoided during (and potentially after) the COVID-19 outbreak (Zhao, 2020).

Biased media coverage can also worsen social stigma, which may affect individuals’ mental health over time (Goudsmit & Howes, 2017). Furthermore, when combined with a misconception of the nature of the virus’ agents, hot-button news stories calling COVID-19 the “Chinese virus” or “Kung flu” can promote fear and panic which propels prejudice, xenophobia, and discrimination against Chinese people and populations (Das, 2020; Person et al., 2004).

Social representations theory

Social representations theory (SRT), formulated by social psychologist Serge Moscovici, refers to common ways of conceiving, thinking about, and evaluating social reality (Höijer, 2011). Moscovici’s work has influenced many disciplines, including public health, political science, media studies, social psychology, and sociology (Flick, 1998). SRT suggests that people understand and share common ideas through social constructions, such as values, objects, beliefs, metaphors, and popular views, to establish social order and enable communication among groups and communities (Höijer, 2011; Moscovici, 2001; Wagner et al., 1999). This focus on representations of new social and cultural issues and communication makes the theory highly relevant to media studies (Höijer, 2011). This study focuses on SRT’s communicative perspectives (i.e., its naming, thematic anchoring and emotional anchoring, objectification, and naturalization processes), making use of how the theory links society, individuals, media, and the public. For instance, when a media organization represents a social phenomenon in a certain fashion, it influences how news consumers make sense of that social issue. Further, people’s understanding of social issues is shaped by their media consumption, and they contextualize their reality through everyday conversations (Höijer, 2011; Kamboh et al., 2021). Thus, these social issues eventually emerge as popular opinion in the public eye; SRT explains this phenomenon as it includes a communication component. Scholars suggest that SRT does not only encompass the representations themselves, but rather how they are created and recreated through everyday social interactions (Murray, 2002). SRT guides us in understanding a social phenomenon in different ways, and one way is to categorize popular views on a disease through labeling a health problem as destructive (Herzlich, 1973). We explicate each of SRT’s communicative perspectives below.

SRT’s naming element explains that the unknown is anchored in and named after an existing order of concepts that is meaningful to the public. Thus, when a new infectious disease breaks out, people often understand it through its association with previous diseases. This association creates an anchoring mechanism that helps the public understand the new disease through terms from previous epidemics (Camargo & Bousfield, 2009; Idoiaga Mondragon et al., 2017). How the mainstream media name a societal issue, such as a disease, results in the public creation of frames of reference for the issue. However, naming and classifying the “unknown” sometimes results in stereotyping, especially of social groups, raising questions of inclusion and exclusion, discrimination, power, and domination (Lippman, 1998).

One mechanism of SRT, thematic anchoring, refers to that underlying process of anchoring or naming a social phenomenon—in this case, an infectious disease. During this process of anchoring, media texts construct a pattern in the cultural or political system that goes beyond simple naming. Researchers argue that themes in media content related to an infectious disease or illness are culturally and socially constructed through social processes (Höijer, 2011; Marková, 2003). Underlying general patterns of thinking about ideas intertwine with specific contexts, thus generating new social representations. When an unfamiliar characteristic of a disease is specifically represented in the media, people’s understanding of the disease is further shaped. For instance, research shows that when AIDS first hit the “marketplace of public opinion, it was understood in terms of venereal disease like syphilis and as God’s punishment by the more religiously minded” (Wagner et al., 1999, p. 97). Similarly, media outlets highlight particular words and visuals and link those ideas together to make them universal and integrate them into mainstream discourse. As another example, COVID-19 has been portrayed as an engineered virus to bring down world economies in developed countries (Maxmen & Mallapaty, 2021). Ultimately, these ideas become themes in the mainstream media and then trickle down into the society as a whole.

Another mechanism of SRT is emotional anchoring. This anchoring process highlights the emotional context that is generated by making the issue recognizable and understandable. Previous researchers have examined climate change through this lens and found that public responses to climate change are anchored in a mixture of emotions, including fear, hope, guilt, compassion, and nostalgia (Höijer, 2011). Scholars have also found that when the perceived risk of an infectious disease is high, so is the emotional response, including anger, fear, hostility, and anxiety, toward individuals or groups (Idoiaga Mondragon et al., 2017). Here we argue that the issues around COVID-19 and race are similarly socially represented and convey a variety of emotions. Emotional anchoring is embedded in the language being used in the media. For example, the media representation of COVID-19 in relation to race implicitly and explicitly advises keeping away from Chinese communities as they spread the virus and avoiding Chinese restaurants which are likely to sell exotic meats that may contain the virus. Emotional anchoring is also related to other forms of anchoring; for instance, naming COVID-19 as “China virus” or emphasizing where it originated can anchor these phenomena in fear and anxiety among Chinese individuals and others’ fear of them.

In SRT, the objectification process makes “the unknown known by transforming it into something concrete we may perceive and experience with our senses” (Höijer, 2011, p. 12). In this process, ideas move from “perceived to conceived” (Moscovici, 2000, p. 51). In the case of COVID-19 messaging, when media organizations attach specific pandemic, virus, or infectious diseases to global health crises, the abstract phenomenon is objectified. Moscovici (2000) argues that objectifying is a more active process than anchoring (which occurs almost automatically each time we are confronted with new phenomena). The different labels of COVID-19 pandemic such as “Chinese virus,” “Chinese flu,” and “Wuhan flu” have been materialized and understood as objectifications, whereby the pandemic gains a more tangible form. Further, by regularly showing frightening images of mass hospitalizations and reporting ever-rising COVID-19 death toll, the media emphasizes its consumers’ emotional responses (a phenomenon also referred to as emotional objectification) (Höijer, 2011).

Finally, the naturalization process changes something from abstract to real, and eventually an object becomes part of social reality. Moscovici (1961) argues that what was once a concept is transformed into an object through naturalization. The differentiation between concepts and objects is no longer possible; “instead, concepts and objects become elements of reality. The naturalized object becomes an instrument that can be used to categorize—an anchoring point for other concepts and objects” (Hakoköngäs & Sakki, 2016, p. 649). In other words, the racialized understanding of the pandemic may become naturalized, or taken for granted, as a result of frequent media representations of COVID-19 with different names and labels. Thus, the role of the media in the construction of social representations is not only limited to naming and anchoring. Rather, other SRT processes, objectification, and naturalization, help to elucidate the multidimensional role of media in the construction of social representations.

Cognitive polyphasia

The concept of cognitive polyphasia within SRT also has potential utility in aiding our understanding of different social representations of COVID-19 in the media. One researcher interprets Moscovici as suggesting that social representations theory provides “an explanatory framework for the descriptions offered by cognitive psychology and that their combining could translate into a finer understanding of contemporary social phenomena” (Provencher, 2011, p. 378). Cognitive polyphasia deals with individuals who “operate in a social environment and whose actions, thoughts, and symbolic activities are intertwined with the social context in which they take place” (Provencher, 2011, p. 379).

In the context of COVID-19, this intertwining envisioned by Provencher (2011) and others (e.g., Jovchelovitch, 2008; Jovchelovitch & Priego-Hernandez, 2015) has been represented in the media and has linked people’s actions and thoughts about Asian communities being responsible for the spread of the virus. Further, individuals draw upon different types of knowledge and stereotypes to make sense of the virus from competing ideas they get from media sources. This cognitive processing of information allows individuals and societies to create their own interpretations and understandings of events they experience through media (Moscovici & Marková, 2000). This study situates itself within the SRT (Höijer, 2011; Marková, 2008; Moscovici, 1961, 1988) and its concept of cognitive polyphasia (Jovchelovitch, 2008; Jovchelovitch & Priego-Hernández, 2015; Provencher, 2011; Provencher & Wagner, 2012) to interpret media representations of COVID-19 and racism together where the virus is constructed through media. However, cognitive polyphasia concept can be used to study how individuals or media make sense of disease outbreaks such as COVID-19, but our study focuses on the latter to examine social representations of COVID-19 which are constructed by the media. Jovchelovitch and Priego-Hernández (2015, p. 170) argue that cognitive polyphasia “allows specialized sets of representations to coexist in human thought, thereby empowering individuals and communities to make sense and cope with plurality and make full use of the diversity of the human symbolic landscape.” In this paper, we argue that polyphasia can be an outcome of the process within SRT where media frequently constructs COVID-19 phenomenon in a certain way. For instance, people’s knowledge about the origin of virus and its association with the people come from different sources primarily the mainstream media where they make sense of its origin and generate various beliefs about Chinese people and the virus.

During public health crises, people depend on mainstream media to seek timely and up-to-date information about the crisis (Ittefaq et al., 2020; Kamboh et al., 2021; Ophir et al., 2021). This reliance naturally results in more media consumption. Since the beginning of the pandemic, COVID-19 has been politicized by the far-right media and Western political leaders (Calvillo et al., 2020; Perry et al., 2021). The newspapers selected for this study reported on COVID-19 extensively. They are influential and have large circulations in their respective countries, and therefore were chosen for inclusion due to these characteristics (Vu & Lynn, 2020). In such politically precarious times, when polarization is extreme, media outlets play an important role in influencing public attitudes in ways that intensify partisan divides (Bolsen et al., 2014; Hart et al., 2020). The social representations of the virus communicated through the mainstream media can lead society into a more polarized and divided environment. Hence, we argue that COVID-19 is an ideal case to understand social representations constructed by the media in different geographical contexts.

Aims of the study

The present study focuses on social representations of COVID-19 between January 1, 2020 and September 1, 2020, in representative publications of the British, Chinese, and American press. We also explore the differences among the newspapers in constructing social representations of COVID-19. We focus particularly on the terms “Chinese virus,” “China virus,” “Chinese flu,” “Wuhan virus,” and “Kung flu” as exemplars of racist labeling used by the selected media outlets.


Data collection and sampling

Data were collected from three English language newspapers from three countries—The New York Times, The Guardian, and China Daily—using the search terms “Chinese virus” OR “China virus” OR “Chinese flu” OR “Wuhan virus” OR “Kung flu”—using the Nexus Uni database. All three newspapers are widely circulated across the United States, the United Kingdom, and China1 . They were selected based on their political orientation and language. The New York Times is a liberal and left-wing leading international newspaper (Mendes, 2011; Vu & Lynn, 2020), The Guardian is also a left-wing, liberal media outlet (Carvalho, 2007), and China Daily is a Chinese government-owned newspaper (Chen, 2012; Luther & Zhou, 2005).

It is pertinent to mention here that a variety of sources and methods have been used to assess the political orientation of a media outlet in the existing literature (Ho & Quinn, 2008). However, we relied on studies which assessed these particular newspapers in the past and categorized them in such a fashion (for more information, see Chen, 2012; Luther & Zhou, 2005; Mendes, 2011; Vu & Lynn, 2020). These newspapers were also chosen because they cover both national and international news about the COVID-19 pandemic. Finally, because racialized incidents took place across the world, particularly in the U.S. and the UK (Elias et al., 2021; Sastry & Ban, 2020), analyzing these newspapers is critical as their readership is global, and they set the agenda on social issues.

Data were collected between January 1, 2020 and September 30, 2020. This timeframe was selected because the first article about the virus in any of these newspapers was published in January 2020. Moreover, during the selected period, many organizations reported the highest racialized and verbal attacks faced by Chinese communities in 2020 (Zheng et al., 2020). In total, 451 news articles were collected from The New York Times (N = 211), China Daily (N = 107), and The Guardian (N = 133). Using qualitative thematic analysis (QTA), we analyzed the data using social representations theory as a conceptual framework for this study.

Data analysis

The authors used qualitative thematic analysis (QTA) to understand a social constructionist view of the media content. This method requires researchers to identify, analyze, and report themes within the media text (Braun & Clarke, 2006). Such patterns of meaning are represented as themes in news articles.

Qualitative thematic analysis (QTA) is one of the most widely used methods in media and communication fields. QTA allows researchers to generate themes which provide an opportunity to them to interpret and describe a social phenomenon related a specific culture and context (Vaismoradi & Snelgrove, 2019). Because this study provides a rich description of the qualitative data on how mainstream media in three countries socially represent COVID-19 and its connection with racism against Asian communities, QTA was appropriate to use for this study.

Research shows that QTA is suitable for studies which employ relatively low interpretation compared to grounded theory, which requires a higher level of interpretive complexity. This method is also appropriate when a study’s objectives are to understand social reality that is embedded in particular contexts. In this study, QTA was used within the constructionist paradigm (Vaismoradi et al., 2013). While other methods such as socio-cognitive (van Dijk, 1993) and naturalistic observation (Yudin, 2008) approaches to the thematic structure of news content are as valid and useful as the constructivist approach (Jaspal & Nerlich, 2014), the present study situates itself within the growing well of literature on qualitative thematic analysis and social representations theory (Pearce & Stockdale, 2009).

QTA allows the researchers to engage with their theories (in our case the SRT and its relevant concept of cognitive polyphasia) in a quasi-deductive manner to add theoretical depth to the data analysis (Hayes, 1997). This approach helps researchers engage with theory throughout the analysis process, providing scope for theory development by going beyond mere explanation toward thick description—that is, “beyond the obvious and superficial” (Geertz, 1973, p. 27). In media and communication research, the SRT can guide researchers to identify basic social representations constructed by the press (Vala et al., 1998). Coupling different social representations within SRT including its associated concept of cognitive polyphasia, this study is intended to contribute to the expanding body of existing studies connecting COVID-19, racism, and health communication through an in-depth examination of observable patterns of social representation constructed by the media.

Following the approach of Jaspal and Nerlich (2014), the selected articles were read repeatedly by the first three authors, and emerging codes were captured. In the three-phase coding process, we first used an open coding approach that included 20% of the data. We read all news articles sentence by sentence (Braun & Clarke, 2006, 2019). During this phase, we remained open to all possible themes related to the aims of the study. We continually updated the coding sheet as each of the first three authors continued coding selected articles.

Second, we used more focused coding to determine the most frequently occurring codes in the data that eventually contributed to the final themes related to the aims of the study. During this phase, 12 possible codes emerged, and eventually more narrow categories were developed. Some examples of these second-phase codes were (1) misinformation; (2) challenges Asians face during COVID-19 in the U.S., the UK, and other similar Western and non-Western countries; (3) the Chinese government’s efforts to diplomatically solve the problem; (4) the rise of racism and xenophobia as a threat not only to Asians but other minority groups as well; (5) blame game between the U.S. and China; (6) economic threat of the virus; (7) threat to minorities and immuno-compromised people; (8) solution to end racism in the West; (9) racist labeling of the virus; political leaders and COVID-19; (10) origin of the virus and its association with China; (11) viruses and geographical boundaries; and 12) fear and anxiety among Asians due to hate crimes.

The codes developed during the second phase provided an overview of how the press in three countries helped construct the naming and anchoring aspects of SRT through use of key racialized terms for the COVID-19 virus (Kung flu, Chinese flu, China virus, Wuhan virus, Chinese virus). The articles we examined contained vivid, compelling, and representative themes. Relevant SRT processes (e.g., naming, objectifying, and naturalizing) were drawn upon as a means of theoretically enriching the analysis. Using this procedure, the researchers developed a hierarchy of themes and subthemes. During the final phase we discussed, refined, modified, and merged the initial themes and reached an agreement that four major themes encompass the representation of COVID-19 in relation to racism across the selected newspapers. These overarching themes reflected the key representations of COVID-19, while sub-themes served as supportive peripheral elements of the news content. To ensure the confirmability of these themes and subthemes, the research team discussed and agreed upon four superordinate themes. Further, to establish credibility (a trustworthy match between coders’ observations and SRT), the research team discussed their findings with experts in qualitative analysis of media content (Berthelsen & Hameleers, 2021).


The four most prevalent themes revealed in the analysis were: (a) racialization of the virus as a multi-faceted threat; (b) COVID-19 disease as a threat; (c) calls for collectivization to curb the racialization of the virus; and (d) offers of speculative solutions to end discrimination. We discuss each in turn. Moreover, Asians and Chinese individuals’ stories in this sample highlighted an increase in both anti-Chinese rhetoric and shifting of blame for the pandemic, as well as reports of both verbal and physical assaults. Interestingly, the Western newspapers (i.e., The NYT and The Guardian) featured the first two themes (i.e., racialization of the virus and COVID-19 disease as a threat) more compared to the third and fourth themes (see Table 1). Secondly, China Daily emphasized curbing the racialization of the virus and speculation of potential solutions to end xenophobia and hate crimes against Chinese communities in Western countries.

Overview of themes and subthemes in all selected newspapers
Theme Subtheme The NYT (%) The guardian (%) China daily (%)
Racialization of the virus as a multi-faceted threat Attribution of blame as a threat to China-U.S. relationship 30 33 40
COVID-19 disease as a threat

Misinformation/disinformation threat

Threat to racial minorities

Economic threat

40 45 15
Collectivization to curb the racialization of the virus 15 10 25
Speculative solutions to end discrimination 15 12 20

Theme 1: racialization of the virus as a multi-faceted threat

Most articles from all newspapers exhibited the social representation of concepts relating to the racialization of the virus as a multi-faceted threat, such as a threat to people of Chinese ethnicity. For instance, an article in The NYT reported “Chinese-Americans have been spit on, yelled at and attacked by bigots during the coronavirus pandemic” (June 24, 2020). Other excerpts:

Ever since the novel coronavirus epidemic broke out, there have been a number of nicknames being used in the media internationally—including the China virus and Kung Flu. Using such terms is irresponsible, as it creates an opportunity for racism and discrimination. (China Daily, February 25, 2020)

As the death toll from the coronavirus rises in the U.S., so do reports of verbal and physical attacks against Asian-Americans, who say hostile strangers are blaming them for the pandemic. Today, one writer shared her story. (The NYT, April 10, 2020)

That point was made painfully clear when, rather than taking the opportunity to unite and embrace a rising spirit of generosity and togetherness emanating around the globe, the president of the United States made a choice to sow division, publicly labeling Covid-19 the “Chinese virus” or “Wuhan virus.” (The NYT, April 5, 2020)

These excerpts demonstrate the construction of racialization of the virus that may encourage hate crimes, harassments, and discrimination against Asian and Chinese communities. According to an NBC News report, there has been a nearly 150% increase in anti-Asian hate crimes in 2020 in the United States alone (Yam, 2021). The rhetorical labeling of the virus as “Chinese virus,” “Wuhan virus,” and “Kung flu” by influential and prominent individuals sharing their racism openly via both traditional media and social media platforms to an audience of millions strongly suggests that the virus’ harms and dangers emanate from a specific community and location. This negative image further contributes to the social representation of the racialization of the virus as a multi-faceted threat. Labeling the virus with these terms’ anchors COVID-19 to the imagery of a specific community or location, therefore prompting racism against specific communities.

I am currently going to medical school on Long Island, where I am a third-year medical student doing rotation at a hospital. Ever since the coronavirus outbreak, I have heard hospital staff “joking” about pandemics. They taunt about the foods people eat in China, as if all Chinese are barbarians. They make statements about how Huoshenshan Hospital is actually a concentration camp incapable of taking care of patients. They ignore the Chinese government’s efforts to respond to the outbreak. (The NYT, April 4, 2020)

As the above excerpt reads, hospital staff “joke” about the pandemic and taunt the Chinese about the food they eat. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, multiple news reports mention that the virus’ origin might stem from wet food markets in China (CDC, 2020). The newspapers also mention that racialization of the virus is a threat to racial/ethnic minorities; however, these sentiments are not only channeled by the media but also instigated by some international political leaders. The following excerpt demonstrates this notion.

Across the US, Chinese Americans, and other Asians, are increasingly living in fear as the coronavirus spreads across the country amid racial prejudice that the outbreak is somehow the fault of China. It is a fear grounded in racism, but also promoted from the White House as Donald Trump – and his close advisers – insist on calling it “the Chinese virus.” (The Guardian, March 24, 2020)

Subtheme: attribution of blame as a threat to China-U.S. relationship

The evaluated media coverage did not only indicate a deepening apprehension on the individual level but also highlighted growing political tensions regarding the relationship between China and the West. The following excerpts further detail the rhetoric blaming of China and the Chinese for spreading the virus, thus creating ideal conditions for understanding “othering” in mass attitudes and providing a basis for the racialization of the virus as a multi-faceted threat.

Working together brings both sides benefits, fighting hurts both. Cooperation is the only choice,“ he said. Xi said he hoped the US would take ”substantive actions“ to improve US-China relations to develop a relationship that is ”without conflict and confrontation“ but based on ”mutual respect and mutually beneficial cooperation. (The Guardian, March 27, 2020)

But President Trump’s labeling of the virus as the “Wuhan virus” or the “Chinese virus” has prompted accusations from Democrats that he is trying to pin the blame for the outbreak on a rival power he has tangled with on trade and other issues, in addition to cries that the label is racist. (The NYT, March 22, 2020)

The criticism from Washington is likely to worsen US-China tensions. Trump has insisted on calling the disease the “Chinese virus” despite Beijing’s opposition to the term. (The Guardian, April 2, 2020)

These excerpts showcase both growing tensions between the countries and request for action against racism and hate crimes against Chinese and Asian communities. These selections also highlight the assertion that political figures and institutional authorities have the power to establish a representation on their own (Breakwell, 2001). According to Flinders (2021), individuals in power, particularly politicians, use agenda-shaping, scapegoating, and deflecting tactics to keep themselves blame-free and influence public attitudes. In this case, it is Asian and Chinese communities who are targeted for discrimination.

Additionally, the extracts below sharply illustrate the “blame-game” between the West and China in the portrayal of the virus. The Chinese authorities are portrayed as trying to instigate collective efforts to work with rival powers to curb the threat of the virus and minimize racialization, reduce hate crimes against Asian and Chinese communities, and maintain trade relations. The papers’ use of racialized terms from Washington worsens the relationship between the two countries despite Beijing’s active opposition to the labels. The rhetorical strategy of blame attribution by some in the Western countries was pervasive in these excerpts; however, China and the Chinese people were identified as the main “culprit” of the spread of the virus outside China—and the main threat. Thus, these excerpts identify distinct social representations of blame and promote objectification of China and Chinese individuals as a threat. In the following extracts, blame is clearly attributed to China by the U.S. officials.

The escalating row between Washington and Beijing over blame for the coronavirus pandemic is fast becoming a battle over the Chinese Communist party legitimacy, raising the stakes in an already fraught relationship. (China Daily, May 4, 2020)

The interim ban on foreigners could contribute further to diplomatic tensions as Beijing and Washington trade barbs over who is to blame for the outbreak that first emerged in central China in December before spreading to much of the rest of the world. US president Donald Trump has repeatedly called coronavirus “the Chinese virus”, prompting condemnation from Beijing. (The Guardian, March 27, 2020)

Although he [Trump] can of course downplay stigmatizing China whenever the situation allows, Trump’s blame-game is also an ill-judged move, because since the outbreak first emerged in China many US states and cities have expressed sympathy and support for the Chinese people. US businesses, institutions and people donated money and supplies to China as it struggled to contain the virus. The US people know that this is not of China’s volition. (China Daily, March 19, 2020)

Theme 2: COVID-19 disease as a threat

Subtheme: misinformation/disinformation threat

The social representation of COVID-19 as a threat has been examined from different perspectives as it is not only a threat to human health but one that affects other social aspects such as human interactions, cultural values, and social structures (i.e., family, economy, and class). The newspapers presented COVID-19 as a threat; this portrayal may become a source of misinformation about the origin of the virus. As seen in one of The NYT articles, the origin of the virus has been anchored to creation in a lab, and it was also accused of infecting essential daily commodities.

Disinformation is also running high. A much-viewed YouTube video in South Korea claims that a biochemical weapons facility in China leaked the coronavirus, a theory that has gained currency in other corners of the globe. In Australia, a fake post circulating on Instagram warned that shops in Sydney containing items like fortune cookies, rice and “Chinese Red Bull” were contaminated. (The NYT, January 30, 2020)

Under SRT and its concept of cognitive polyphasia, even media representations that clearly label information as false run the risk of further anchoring misconceptions in the public mind. Further, the virus was presented as a threat that may be a source in spreading misinformation from the media’s coverage that portrayed the Chinese negatively, as illustrated by this excerpt.

Media in the United States are not committed to presenting the truth. They usually twist stories in a way that misleads Americans who want to believe China is a horrible place and all Asians have the “Chinese virus.” (The NYT, April 4, 2020)

During the COVID-19 pandemic, traditional media coverage was critical to provide information and education to the masses about the severity, risk, and consequences of the outbreak. However, misinformation and misleading content was prevalent not only on social media (Brennen et al., 2020) but also on right-wing media outlets. One of the forms this misinformation took in the present study is connecting people to diseases (Leung, 2008). Anchoring, objectifying, and naturalizing are processes through which meaning is constructed by the media about COVID-19 which may misinform large audiences. This misinformation, introduced into an already emotionally heightened society, could generate racist hate crimes that result in fear, injury, anxiety, mental health issues, and in some cases, even death, particularly in vulnerable populations (Gee et al., 2009, 2020).

Misinformation could be generated from ambiguous statements in news articles. As the excerpt below illustrates, “some countries” were happy that China was suffering from the pandemic in the early days of the global health crisis. This generalized impression that the outbreak would benefit China could generate conspiracy theories, misinformation, and falsehoods about the disease. Further, linking the outbreak as a ploy for China to gain benefits (whether political, social, or financial) may lead to the objectification and naturalization of the virus.

It was expected that the world might extend cooperation with China and overcome the outbreak at the initial stage. If this happened, it might not have spread to the rest of the world. Unfortunately, some countries were happy when China was suffering and believed the outbreak would be an opportunity for them. Soon, they too were victimized and suffered heavy losses. Now they are trying to shift responsibility to China. In fact, they are searching for a scapegoat and trying to make China into one. (China Daily, June 8, 2020)

Subtheme: threat to racial minorities

The social representation of COVID-19 has also been blamed for disproportionately impacting minority communities that have been more exposed to the contagion than majority (white) communities. Several news articles highlight this social representation, noting that the virus has already dealt a significant blow to marginalized communities and added to the racialization of the virus.

Black and Latino Americans are infected with Covid-19 at more than twice the rate of white Americans, with Native Americans infected at even higher rates, research has shown. The groups are historically underrepresented in clinical trials. (The Guardian, August 21, 2020)

In addition to increased xenophobic sentiments, minority groups are disproportionately affected by racial and health disparities due to exposed power inequalities (Elias et al., 2021). As the excerpt above demonstrates, COVID-19 has exacerbated systemic discrimination and social inequality against those communities and individuals who have been most severely impacted by COVID-19 and who are now encountering intensified exclusion and marginalization. The media has shed light on the multidimensional nature of racism during the COVID-19 pandemic—and heightened levels of racist sentiments toward racial minority groups are not limited to people of Asian descent. Widespread public reaction against systemic racism, exemplified by the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, suggests a growing solidarity in anti-racism struggles against ongoing oppression (Elias et al., 2021). These broad-based racist sentiments are shown in the excerpts below.

Discrimination targeting our Asian American and Chinese American friends, neighbors and businesses is harmful to our entire community. (China Daily, March 22, 2020)

Other Asian-Americans—with families from Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines, Myanmar, and other places—are facing threats, too, lumped together with Chinese Americans by a bigotry that does not know the difference. (The NYT, June 2, 2020)

Subtheme: economic threat

The virus has also been represented as having an impact on the economic stability of countries across the globe. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, many companies shut down in a bid to slow the virus’ spread. These shutdowns have led to production interruptions and broken global supply chains; in addition, more than 16% of the U.S. workforce filed for unemployment benefits over a span of five weeks (Tappe, 2020). The representation of the threat of the virus as a phenomenon that can be alleviated because it must inevitably end, and that it must end quickly because the economy must reopen is exemplified by this quote from Trump:

I would love to have it open by Easter. I would love to have it open by Easter, “Trump said.” I would love to have the country opened up and just raring to go by Easter. (The Guardian, March 24, 2020)

However, these sentiments were not homogeneous: some representations portrayed the call to reopen the economy as a self-centered and hazardous endeavor that would have a major impact on U.S. citizens and lead to increased mortality. The social representation here is that the human being is an important capital resource that drives the economy; therefore, the need to curb the virus’ spread before reopening the economy is critical.

The Trump administration’s self-centred, haphazard, and tone-deaf response [to Covid-19] will end up costing American’s trillions of dollars and thousands of otherwise preventable deaths, wrote Stephen Walt, professor of international relations at Harvard. (The Guardian, April 12, 2020)

The SRT examining how an idea is presented in a variety of contexts, offers us the opportunity to look at the unfamiliar and to then incorporate it into our existing networks of classification, and this incorporation allows us to compare it with what we consider known in the category (Moscovici, 2001). For instance, this excerpt compares the severity of the novel coronavirus with the 2008 economic recession—with which we are already familiar—and tells us that COVID-19 is worse.

The novel coronavirus pandemic is the severest crisis the world has faced this century, worse than the 2008 global financial crisis. That the global public health emergency can give rise to a host of crises, including economic, social, and political crises, given its huge impact on the global supply, industrial and value chains should give an idea about its dire long-term effects. (China Daily, April 16, 2020)

Other newspapers represented the xenophobic attacks against the Chinese as stemming from the ongoing U.S.-China trade war and U.S.-China relations that deteriorated during Trump’s administration.

“Some of the xenophobia is likely undergirded by broader political and economic tensions and anxieties related to China, which are interacting with more recent fears of contagion,” said Kristi Govella, an assistant professor of Asian studies at the University of Hawaii, Manoa. (The NYT, January 30, 2020)

The SRT also suggests that social objects are at times “elaborated” by communities or individuals for the purposes of behavior and communication (Jaspal & Nerlich, 2020). We noted that media representation of the COVID-19 pandemic is elaborated through xenophobic attacks and behaviors against the Chinese as a way of communicating pre-existing economic rivalries and racist sentiments that date back to the creations of Chinatowns in the U.S. and other Western countries.

Theme 3: collectivization to curb the racialization of the virus

All newspapers in our sample portrayed the COVID-19 pandemic as a collective responsibility of all stakeholders, including individuals, social activists, government and other institutions, and society as a whole, to work to curb the racialization of the virus. For instance, the following excerpt used the term “color blind” to emphasize that the virus does not see any color, religion, or status. This excerpt from the China Daily invoked a former U.S. Supreme Court justice to reinforce the global collective call for action.

A virus is color blind, to borrow the words of John Marshall Harlan, a former US Supreme Court Justice. It does not discriminate on the basis of skin color, religion, or socioeconomic status. It has no ideological bias. It recognizes no national boundaries. (China Daily, March 25, 2020)

This excerpt charges everyone with responsibility because viruses do not differentiate among geographic or ideological boundaries. It also does not require any particular group to call for collective action in response to the coronavirus and its effects.

This statement also avoids any mention of sub-groups or identities, perhaps because to do so can generate conflict among ethnic groups. Research shows that geographic and political units of analyses can be important in the social representation of global phenomena (Jaspal & Nerlich, 2014), and COVID-19 narratives can be manipulated rhetorically to achieve particular socio-psychological effects. In our case, the accentuation of the “support each other” and “solidarity” units of analyses serve the rhetorical function of collectivizing the threat of COVID-19 to address racism, bigotry, and xenophobia against Asian and Chinese communities—which in turn provides a strong rationale for collective global social action.

Heartwarming example of solidarity #Italy #China. We all need to unite and support each other in the fight against COVID-19, a common enemy. (China Daily, March 20, 2020)

More than 100 prominent writers, including several top Asian American authors, have called for an end to a surge in anti-Asian hostility in the US which they say has been “egged on” during the pandemic by the Trump administration’s pandering to racist tropes. (The Guardian May 25, 2020)

Here, social representation of the virus is linked with the importance of acting together, echoing the collective action frame of mitigation through use of the words “common enemy” and “need to unite.” More crucially, newspapers reported that those who want to make efforts to stop discrimination against Chinese communities in the Western countries are encouraged to do so using hashtags such as “#Italy” and “#China.”

Our analysis suggests that social representational linkage was established between the understanding of the virus and the public’s reaction or individual responses to verbal and physical attacks on Chinese individuals in the U.S., the U.K., and other non-Western countries. The excerpt below displays that linkage.

Public health experts have repeatedly noted that viruses have no ethnicity and expressed concern that associating them with an ethnic group encourages discrimination. (The NYT, June 22, 2020)

Moreover, this excerpt suggests that health experts have shown “concern” that the virus has been associated with subgroups or “ethnicities” because these connections can have negative consequences for global societies. Instead of fomenting division, collective efforts should aim to end “discrimination” against subgroups—in our case, Chinese and Asian communities.

Theme 4: speculative solutions to end discrimination

The sample of articles extensively manifested the collective action frame of mitigation in the representation of potential solutions to virus-based discrimination against Chinese and Asian communities. More specifically, certain hashtags in selected articles were depicted as key to resisting the discrimination (or at least alleviating this complex culturally racialized problem), as exemplified in the following extracts:

The fight against pandemic-related harassment of Asian-Americans has largely fallen to civil rights groups, marketing agencies, social media accounts and nonprofit organizations, which have promoted hashtags like #IAmNotCovid19, #RacismIsAVirus, #HealthNotHate and #MakeNoiseToday. (The NYT, July 21, 2020)

The presentation of a speculative solution to the “pandemic-related harassment of Asian-Americans” is constructed as a call to mitigate this problem by using hashtags like “#IAmNotCovid19, #RacismIsAVirus, and #HealthNotHate.” Perhaps drawing on the successes of hashtags like #BLM and #MeToo, this excerpt demonstrates the perceived power of social media activism to create awareness of and education about the negative effects of racism.

We adhere to the principle of diplomacy for the people and spare no effort to safeguard the safety and interests of overseas Chinese, students, and enterprises in Spain. The embassy is always concerned about the situation and difficulties of more than 200,000 overseas Chinese and students in Spain. Since March, the WeChat official account and the official website of the embassy have released more than 60 messages to remind people to be vigilant against the pandemic situation, make good personal protection and recommend remote medical advice. The embassy has also set up a hotline for consular protection, patiently responding to thousands of calls and letters every day, calming the nervousness of Chinese nationals in Spain, guiding the medical treatment process, and following up the treatment situation. (China Daily, April 8, 2020)

The excerpt above offers another speculative solution to address pervasive racism: calling on Chinese diplomatic missions in other countries to safeguard Chinese individuals overseas. The extract emphasizes that China cares about its people who reside in Western countries, including Spain.

China Daily’s coverage prominently reported concerns about the security of Chinese citizens abroad. Initiatives such as “hotlines” releasing more than “60 messages to remind people to be vigilant against the pandemic situation” on social media app WeChat and the embassy website reflect the problems Chinese residents in many countries were facing. The embassy’s emphasis on its response to regular calls and letters from those with “nervousness” further reveals the severity of the problem. Previous pandemics informed us that “racism during global emergencies is not altogether new” (Elias et al., 2021, p. 784). For instance, the 1900 plague epidemic, which originated in San Francisco’s Chinatown, was labelled an “Oriental disease, peculiar to rice eaters” (Cohn, 2018, p. 470). The following excerpt suggests an ongoing struggle with entrenched anti-Asian racism.

This political moment in fashion also marks a generational shift. “In Asian culture, our parents tell us to keep our heads down,” says Lim. “Don’t make problems and ignore racism so that it will just go away; it’s so ingrained in our subconscious as a means of survival.” (The Guardian, May 20, 2020)

In the representation of the virus, the media reported personalized stories of individuals who experienced racialized attacks. Such stories showcase the conversations that individuals have about racism and xenophobia and how to combat it. For instance, the above extract from The Guardian shows that conversations revolve around speculative solutions that aim to address racism by ignoring it and keeping heads down in the hope that it will eventually “go away.” However, the media representations also suggest that this is a part of Asian culture, and previous generations did the same things to prevent conflicts. But from this statement, the audience can infer those conversations around sensitive topics have become more acceptable with the generational shift.

Research shows that disease can become marred with prejudice toward a stigmatized group framed as responsible for creating or spreading the virus (Kam, 2019). People’s attitudes changed toward racism and Chinese and Asians during (and potentially after) COVID-19 media representations; as reported above, media organizations anchored this virus in China and labeled it with racist names. This extract above explains that for the younger generation, ignoring racism is not the solution; instead, racism should be anchored as a problem requiring both public and policymaker’s attention to address it systematically.

While media representation of the virus acknowledges that racism against Chinese descendants is a real-world problem, it avoids indicating viable solutions to end that xenophobia. Moreover, Chinese institutions have requested foreign governments to end racialization and politicization of the virus as it leads to heightened tensions and soured relationships between countries and societies.

“We urge the US stop politicizing the epidemic, stop attacking and slandering China,” he [Foreign Ministry Spokesman Geng Shuang] said, responding to Mike Pompeo’s latest accusation that China denied the world information about the coronavirus. (China Daily, March 26, 2020)


This article explores the social representations of COVID-19 by British, American, and Chinese newspapers with respect to racism and xenophobia against Chinese and Asian communities. We employed social representations theory and its concept of cognitive polyphasia to determine common themes in social representations related to the virus. The COVID-19 virus is a novel disease, but it is important to note that the use of the virus to justify hostility to foreigners is not a new phenomenon in the U.S. or other Western countries. Naming a disease based on a place, race or ethnicity has been a pattern in the U.S. socio-political history. Instead of raising the spirit of togetherness in combating the virus from various parts of the globe, far-right politicians and media outlets branded the virus with racial terms such as “Chinese virus,” a move which may have increased racialized attacks on Chinese and Asians.

Our analysis highlighted the emergence of racialization of the virus as a multi-faceted threat. Such representation in the media was formed in the context of exclusionary nationalism and global recession wherein fear plays an adverse role, triggering xenophobic reactions and behaviors such as discrimination, hate crimes, and harassment against Chinese individuals. The symbolic elaboration of the virus’ threat through language, branding, and racialization that promotes bias and xenophobia (e.g., “Kung flu,” “China kids should stay home”) is echoed in previous research findings (de Rosa & Mannarini, 2020; Elias et al., 2021).

This illustration, where the media make the “invisible” threat visible through the process of racialization and othering, hints at a new categorization, identification, and differentiation of the virus. As previous research has shown, the emotional reaction to the threat of a virus can diminish one’s empathy (also displayed here in several excerpts) and lead to scapegoating, stigmatization, blaming, and dehumanization of minority groups, as well as the invocation of violence (Flinders, 2021). In addition, the racialization of the virus is also foregrounded in the tension-fraught political sphere and “blame-game” between the West and China. The past year has seen both an ongoing pandemic as well as the rise in public protests and debates on racial issues, similar to the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. Racist actions and attitudes against Chinese individuals have been exacerbated by media reporting of COVID-19 as a racialized threat.

Under the theme of COVID-19 as a threat, the polarized and polemic social representations of the disease can lead different social groups to derive a variety of conclusions about the threat and how to respond to it (de Rosa & Mannarini, 2020). The threat aspect identified here is depicted in the de Rosa and Mannarini study above and is also reflected in our results. However, we approach the threat theme in a different way: media portrayals of the disease as a threat may result in misinformation, a threat to minority health, and an economic threat. The “disease as a threat” theme is also fronted by the fact that, unlike past viral outbreaks, containing the virus proved futile for many months, while information overload made the flow of both truthful and false information difficult to manage.

The disease has had implications that go well beyond those afflicted by its physical symptoms. COVID-19’s portrayal as a threat may have also been due to the belief that its containment was perceived as a “lost battle;” some governments and world leaders ignored alerts and did not counter the potential spread of the disease early enough (Gupta, 2020). Previous research contends that with COVID’s novelty comes the need for the masses to seek more information about it; in that search, individuals may have been led to untrustworthy sources (de Rosa & Mannarini, 2020).

Similarly, we found that misinformation may have arisen from—and was certainly bolstered by—deeply polarized representations in the selected newspapers. Decreased interactions due to quarantines, as well as national institutions of social distancing and curfew requirements may well have increased the odds of encountering misinformation. Self-selection of information sources tends to confine people to interactions with only like-minded individuals, and that confinement leads to a vicious cycle of increased polarization and decreased social trust and social relations (Hetherington & Weiler, 2015).

Xenophobic attacks are not limited to one group of individuals alone, and they are not all the same. Many members of racial minority groups who endured chronic illnesses before the pandemic received an additional blow: Their health, already distressed due to existing disparities in the healthcare system, suffered more of an impact from COVID than others (Carethers, 2020). Economically, lockdowns taken as preventive measures saw businesses and factories closed. These closures posed a threat to businesses which had to scale down their production and cut down on human labor, leading to unemployment. The economic challenges also threatened minority-owned businesses as there were calls to boycott patronage to Chinese and Asians restaurants and services.

Our investigation found the call for action to combat racialization of the virus in all newspapers. For instance, it was emphasized that collective efforts are needed, unity is required, and individuals need to support one another and unite during this crisis. This united message may have contributed to large-scale change in the society to diffuse a strong sense of community, particularly during disease outbreaks such as this one. Previous studies reveal that media do attempt to control the danger of a problem—in this case a disease outbreak (Joffe & Haarhoff, 2002).

Mass media is vital in the construction of social representations about threats like the pandemic. These constructions matter because individuals rely on the media to construct the meaning of a health issue, and they tend to think, feel, and act in a certain way in part due to media representations that they understand and modify based on their own interpretations of conflicting information. The large number of articles in our sample focused on the collectivization theme that suggests acting together during COVID-19 would not only help people to fight racism and xenophobia but also to counter social, political, and financial challenges. In line with Martikainen and Sakki’s (2021) study on visual social representations of COVID-19 in the media, we found that newspapers took an action-oriented approach to deal with the virus, both socially and politically. Some scholarship suggests that individuals should care about racism and hate crimes during COVID-19 because racism is not only morally wrong but also has medical consequences, including heart disease, substance abuse, and suicide, among Asians (Gee et al., 2009, 2020).

Our findings reveal that newspapers present some speculative solutions to end discrimination against Chinese communities. Newspaper excerpts suggested that racism could be countered through the use of social media and certain hashtags to create public awareness. However, concrete solutions, such as addressing racism systematically, were rare in media coverage. Research shows that the media’s role is critical in forming stereotypes against racial and ethnic minorities (Scharrer & Ramasubramanian, 2015). Similarly, media representations of these social issues can significantly impact those racial stereotypes, for both good and ill.

The social representations theory attempts to explain our understanding of how we process abstract concepts in relation to concrete ones, while cognitive polyphasia addresses how we reconcile conflicting ideas and information we receive. The virus’ representations in the media included warnings that people are at a global risk of COVID-19. Those social representations may well have created emotional responses in consumers that resulted in individuals being extra cautious, expressing their emotions through blaming of the Chinese people, participating in hate crimes, and engaging in harassment, discrimination, and physical attacks against people of Chinese descent.

To put these findings into a theoretical perspective, the COVID-19 pandemic was socially, politically, culturally, and racially constructed to make it meaningful, helping individuals to understand the relationship between racism, diseases, and places. This phenomenon is called thematic anchoring in SRT, and it is demonstrated through the use of the name of the place whence the virus originated. The use of place names reinforces the idea of an ethnic and geographic origin of the problem to create more hate and fear against individuals originating from that particular area; the Ebola virus’ linkage to Africa is an example (Idoiaga Mondragon et al., 2017). The SRT suggests that individuals tend to shape widely shared spontaneous theories in relation to novel illnesses, and these perceptions help individuals to form coping strategies in the face of threat (Joffe & Haarhoff, 2002). The newspaper stories in our sample revealed numerous stories labeled COVID-19 as the flu, a conspiracy theory, or a low-risk virus from China—clear indications of a coping strategy in action.

Cognitive polyphasia, a useful concept within SRT, helps to explain how people, faced with contested information or conflicting perspectives, make decisions on what to believe and how to act. Focused on individuals in a social setting, the theory claims that to understand how people in society process information, “one needs to look at the values and norms of the society and social groups in which they take place” (Provencher, 2011, p. 379). Media representations, then, help to construct the values and norms upon which social individuals rely in making sense of a situation, a notion, or an idea (Provencher, 2011). While SRT helps us understand media portrayals in a systematic and structured way, cognitive polyphasia sheds light on how the individuals use those media portrayals to make decisions about the way they live and what they believe.

In a comparison among the three newspapers, China Daily constructed the pandemic in a different dimension through the use of political leaders’ thoughts about the virus. For example, the articles featured Chinese political leaders calling for amicable solutions that would foster a collective global response in tackling the virus and reduce xenophobic attacks on Chinese communities. Since China Daily is a state-owned media outlet (Chen, 2012) that often attempts to counter Western media narratives about China, it is reasonable to believe that echoing the need for shared responsibility to provide solutions and not to associate the virus with Chinese and Asian descents might have been aimed to lessen tension-fraught relations with the West.

Table 1 indicates that China Daily emphasized more on racialization of the virus as a multi-faceted threat, collectivization to curb the racialization of the virus, and speculative solutions to end discrimination compared to Western newspapers (i.e., The NYT and The Guardian). The Western newspapers highlighted COVID-19 disease as a threat more compared to China Daily. These differences show how different newspapers link the virus with different issues. These differences further reveal journalistic cultures exist in selected countries for this study. Because China was blamed for the spread of the virus, it makes sense for the state-owned media not to highlight disease as a threat rather divert public attention elsewhere and focus on other related issues including xenophobia, racism, and hate crimes against Chinese communities in many parts of the world. China Daily also proposed solutions to counter racism and hate crimes more compared to other two newspapers.


Our results suggest that the media tend to emphasize the idea that global efforts must be made to change how people think about, talk about, and understand COVID-19 pandemic in relation to racism, xenophobia, and hate crimes. The SRT postulates that the media constructs, deconstructs, and reconstructs the meaning of objects, values, and popular viewpoints, while cognitive polyphasia suggests that individuals look to a variety of sources, many of them public and sometimes conflicting, to understand their worlds; they combine individual backgrounds and beliefs with social (and media) representations in an attempt to reconcile competing views. We found that various aspects of the SRT were prominent in news coverage as part of anchoring and objectifying processes, including thematic, emotional, and naming mechanisms that labeled the virus with racist names such as “Chinese virus” and “Kung flu.”

The concept of cognitive polyphasia within SRT further explains that the unknown is anchored and named after an existing order of concepts that are meaningful to the public, and individuals use those anchors and names in evaluations and reconciliations of mediated information. In our case, it was COVID-19 which became meaningful after the media repeatedly mentioned it in the headlines and news articles. The consistent use of racialized terms of the virus by politicians and the media became a norm and a popular viewpoint in many Western countries. Research indicates that the media are social actors who “mediate” interactions between politicians and the public. Such mediation creates social relations which play a fundamental role in understanding social phenomena—in this case, the virus (Wagner et al., 1999). For example, the racist disease naming originated from a political sphere which was translated (“mediated”) to the masses through the media and has in turn popularized the notion that COVID-19 originated from a wet market in China and is a significant threat to society, thus reinforcing negative emotions of fear, hostility, and anger, as well as the encouragement of hate crimes against Chinese communities. To what degree cognitive polyphasia plays a role in either the fomentation of hate and racism or the fight against it is a topic that begs for additional research. Our findings suggest how mediated messages work to provide social individuals (Provencher, 2011) with conflicting information and perspectives on the racialization of COVID-19. However, more work should be done on how people in a society parse and evaluate that information and ultimately decide what to believe based on a variety of elements—of which media representation is but one.

In terms of limitations, the findings should consider the fact that the data collection only relied on three newspapers which may not be equally popular among different populations. This study relied on some very specific concepts of SRT such as cognitive polyphasia and used qualitative method only. Both of these factors limit the findings transferability to other infectious diseases or media outlets in other countries. In addition, we did not consider national culture of journalism exist in these three different countries. Future research should explore how journalistic culture of each country influences how media socially represent infectious diseases such as the COVID-19.

This study has implications for national and international governments to pursue policies that address growing exclusionary social attitudes and racism within a nation. Future research could investigate how the COVID-19 pandemic is depicted in other forms of media, such as social media, as well as how discussions about and racialization of the disease labeled as a threat are occurring in online communities.

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