Media and Modern Racism: Understanding Anti-asian Attitudes and Behaviors During the Covid-19 Pandemic

Date of Award

Spring 5-15-2022

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Mass Communications


Willnat, Lars

Second Advisor

Yu, Bei


Asians, intergroup threat theory, repetition priming effects, survey

Subject Categories

Arts and Humanities | Asian American Studies | Communication | Mass Communication | Race, Ethnicity and Post-Colonial Studies | Social and Behavioral Sciences


Alongside the coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak, a racism pandemic has spread throughout the United States. The goal of this study is to better understand how non-Asian Americans may perceive Asian Americans as a threat during the current pandemic, a perception that may, in turn, lead to anti-Asian attitudes and behaviors. This study employed semantic network and social media analyses of media coverage on Fox News, MSNBC, and Twitter of the pandemic between February 2020 and August 2021. To further understand perceptions of Asian Americans during the pandemic, this study also used a national online survey (N = 1,200) alongside the content analytical approaches. A new model, referred to as the "intergroup threat-based priming" (ITP) framework, was proposed to analyze the role played by media in stigmatizing Asians and Asian Americans and how such perceptions could have affected intergroup relations.

This study showed that when reporting on the pandemic, both Fox News and MSNBC contained stigmatizing news cues, but Fox News contained more stigmatizing news cues and associated the virus more closely with China than did MSNBC. In addition, nearly 15,000 tweets containing stigmatizing terms were posted on Twitter every day between February 2020, and August 2021. Findings from the survey indicated that more exposure to news about the pandemic on Fox News and on social media was associated with higher levels of anti-Asian stigmatization related to the pandemic. No statistically significant results were observed for a relationship between MSNBC exposure and stigmatization. As predicted, mediated anti-Asian stigmatization significantly boosted participants' perceptions of realistic and symbolic threats coming from Asian Americans, which, in turn, increased respondents' racist and hostile attitudes toward Asian Americans.

This study provided timely evidence enriching the ongoing social discussion of anti-Asian hate incidents, which continue to occur amid the current pandemic. Utilizing ITP, the current study has further enhanced intergroup threat theory by demonstrating the dynamic nature of threat perceptions and intergroup relations. More importantly, it has added to our understanding of intergroup relations in an anti-Asian discrimination context. The study concluded that the media bear much responsibility in actively combatting and negating the stigmatization of marginalized groups.


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