You've got to hand it to the Chinese. They know how to put on a show, as the world saw during the opening of the Beijing Olympics in August—and today for closing ceremony of the Paralympics.
And the world's media were a pushover audience, according to a new study led by the International Center for Media and the Public Agenda (ICMPA) at the University of Maryland and conducted by the Salzburg Academy on Media & Global Change.
How did media cover the Olympics? Overwhelmingly as a sporting event rather than as a political power game. Prior to the Olympics, there was much speculation that the global press would turn the games into an international anti-China campaign—after all there had been extensive coverage of the protests against China's human rights record during the global torch relay and of the rioting in Tibet.
But that all essentially disappeared off the front pages of global newspapers. The brilliantly conceived and staged opening ceremony attracted 'gee-whiz' coverage. The press ignored the attending heads of state—and even, in most instances, the parade of their own countries' athletes—to focus on the new Chinese superpower flexing its muscles with choreographed musicians, lights and fireworks.
The first week of athletic competition was also treated as almost pure spectacle. The reporting—not just of the athletes, but of China—was overwhelmingly either positive or neutral in tone.
Which regions of the world were most favorably disposed towards China? The Arab news outlets were the most positive, followed by other Asian countries (such as India), then Latin America, then Europe and the United States. Which region had the most jaundiced eye? Africa.
The Olympics study also looked at other issues. For example: Were mens' or women's events better covered? The press in the Arab world emphasized the achievements of male athletes and the African media focused on women. The Chinese media offered the most balanced coverage of male and female contestants.
The study, conducted live during the Olympics by faculty and students attending the Salzburg Academy in Salzburg, Austria, looked at the coverage of the first week of the games, from August 8 – 14. Working in their native languages—Afrikaans, Arabic, Chinese, English, French, German, Hindi, Korean, Portuguese and Spanish—the researchers analyzed 68 leading newspapers, in 29 countries, across six continents (click here for the full list of countries).
Susan Moeller is director of ICMPA and associate professor at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism and School of Public Policy, University of Maryland, College Park.