Media that Makes us: Sinophobia in American Journalism

Jacob Wisda
6 min readMar 26, 2021

By now, most Americans have reckoned with the shootings perpetrated by Robert Aaron Long. His killing spree across three Atlanta-area massage parlors recalls a time when mass shootings were an almost-daily occurrence. If his attack is any indication, that may soon become the case again.

That said, Robert Aaron Long isn’t only significant for committing the first large-scale mass shooting in months. His choice of victim— Asian women — is just as significant. Despite how often mass shootings and hate crimes intersect in the United States, Long’s killing spree garnered particular attention by forefronting the rise of anti-Chinese sentiment, or Sinophobia. Because however tempting it is to label today’s shooter a bad apple, he isn’t acting in isolation.

CSUSB’s Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism reported a 150% surge in anti-Asian hate crimes¹ during the last year. Furthermore, the Anti Defamation League charted a doubling of white supremacist and Anti-Asian propaganda in 2020². Although these statistics are useful, they leave a critical question unanswered. Who or what is pushing anti-Asian sentiment to these dangerous levels? While it’s tempting to blame propaganda, Sinophobia has spread outside tight-knit extremist circles. As such, Americans need to consider how popular media messaging informs this rising tide of hate.

Cultivation theory describes how media shapes a public’s views. It posits that people perceive the world’s social realities as they are presented by the media they consume. This isn’t to say that anyone who consumes racist propaganda will immediately become a racist. Rather, media informs the broader worldview of its recipient. As such, news outlets that foster an adversarial relationship with China will incur material changes in public perception. By way of an example, here’s an op-ed written by one editor for the New York Times³:

In her article, Farah Stockman writes clean, seemingly well-intentioned prose about China’s place in the global marketplace. And yet, even some of her more lucid points are bogged down by implicit biases. Stockman relies on alarmist language, treating another nation’s growth with rhetorical urgency that would feel at home during the red scare. Not only does she blame China for the US’s spike in populist extremism, she also implies it will undermine the international free market. To be clear, Stockman’s problem isn’t that any one country can shift global trade so drastically. Rather, she takes umbrage with the fact that China attained economic leverage over the United States:

The tariffs have largely taken a back seat to the much larger debate about what the U.S.-China relationship should look like in the coming years, and how the United States can best preserve its technological and military edge in the face of an ascendant China.

As early as the article’s title, Stockman’s piece strives to antagonize China and set up a sense of conflict with it. She presents the nation and its political philosophy as nothing less than a threat to the US’s social, economic, and military order. The proliferation of fear-mongering articles like this all but ensure a spike in Sinophobia.

Anti-Asian sentiment is so baked into the media landscape that even internet memes have begun pointing it out.

Our media’s combative reporting was further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. As early as February, 2020, then-president Donald Trump tried to present the disease as a byproduct of China’s incompetence and malice. Not only did this popular narrative catch on, but it still haunts the US. Even though later studies revealed that COVID-19 emerged from Europe, not Asia⁴, the narrative of a Chinese virus hasn’t dissipated.

Just a few months before the Atlanta shooting, The Washington Post released another opinion piece illustrating this concept. In The election is over. Can we finally blame China for the pandemic?⁵, columnist Marc A. Thiessen makes a case for holding China responsible for the COVID-19 outbreak.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume Marc is correct. We could operate on the premise that China allowed COVID to spread within their boarder and failed to keep it from travelling internationally. We might even accept his conclusion that China is worthy of blame.

But even if this is all true, Marc leaves some prescient questions untouched. For example, does the pandemic’s toll on the US have anything to do with a lackluster response to the virus? Other countries faced the disease and they came back from it faster and more efficiently⁶. More to the point, Marc doesn’t tell his reader what to do beyond holding China in contempt. In this regard, he reveals a prevailing media attitude.

All too often, news outlets aren’t interested in presenting the unbiased facts. Instead, they prefer to level blame and generate ire for the sake of attracting a wide readership. After all, manufacturing widespread, hateful consensus on China stands to attract readers because consumers are drawn to media they have strong feelings about. Less than three months into this year, Americans have already seen mortal consequences.

To better explain this phenomenon, we can turn to another example. Six months ago, Aljazeera compared rising Sinophobia to the surge of Islamophobia following 9/11. Just as news outlets vilified a vaguely defined terrorist, Middle Eastern, or Muslim threat in the early 2000s; so too have media entities done the same with Asians and China today⁷.

To be clear, it’s unlikely that these journalists blamed individual Asians or Muslims for COVID or 9/11. Yet, when they generalize and vilify an entire nation or culture, journalists inevitably redirect hatred to undeserving individuals. Islamophobia didn’t undo 9/11. It has only created more victims in the last twenty years. The same grim reality may be dawning again.

In the week following Long’s shooting, not much has changed. Many news outlets have taken the chance to reflect on this rise in Sinophobia, but few have come close to acknowledging their own culpability. One exception comes from The Washington Post. In their article, Bipartisan political rhetoric about Asia leads to anti-Asian violence here⁸, Janelle Wong and Viet Thanh Nguyen outline the US’s long history of anti-Asian sentiment. Critically, they note how Sinophobia is not unique to the Trump era, nor does it only emerge from figures like Trump. In their own words:

While former president Barack Obama and President Biden have both denounced anti-Asian violence, as they should, they have also spent their careers embracing critical takes on China that have overlapped with Trump’s and that may have helped accelerate Sinophobic sentiment in the United States.

The authors make a convincing case, demonstrating how political and media ire toward China feeds into anti-Asian sentiment. The overall takeaway is simple. Media entities aren’t independent of the social forces they report on. Yesterday’s news story doesn’t fade from existence. Rather, it informs the values and beliefs behind one’s future interactions. If Long exemplifies the attitude mass media imparts, he paints a damning picture, one that demands reassessment and contrition.

A more nuanced approach to reporting on China won’t bring Long’s victims back to life. Nevertheless, just as widespread Islamophobia fostered decades of targeted hatred, so too does journalists’ Sinophobia endanger Asians’ future in this country. The solution is to take a lesson, and reject manufactured hatred in all its forms. It’s that, or prepare ourselves for many more Robert Aaron Longs.

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