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Study: Global Media Coverage of Beijing Olympics Avoids Politics

September 18, 2008

Source: Newswise, University of Maryland, College Park
September 17, 2008
 
Newswise - Leading newspapers around the world covered the Beijing Olympics as a sporting event rather than as a political power game, according to new study led by the International Center for Media and the Public Agenda (ICMPA) at the University of Maryland.
 
The study, conducted live during the Olympics by faculty and students attending the Salzburg Academy on Media & Global Change in Salzburg, Austria, looked at the coverage of the first week of the Olympics, from August 8 - 14, by 68 newspapers, in 10 languages, in 29 countries, across six continents.
 
Despite media build-up to the Olympics that featured protests against China 's human rights record during the global torch relay, images of riots in Tibet, charges against the Dalai Lama, and news of recalls of unsafe Chinese toys, the international press covered the opening Olympic ceremony and the first week of athletic competition as almost pure spectacle.
 
"Prior to the opening ceremony there was much speculation that the world's media would turn the games into an international anti-China campaign," said the study's director, Dr. Jad Melki, research director at ICMPA. "The study results show that, on the contrary, most of the world's coverage of China was overwhelming either positive or neutral in tone."
 
The study shows 55 percent of the front-page stories that first week of coverage had content directly related to China - in addition to content about China 's hosting of the Olympics and/or to Chinese athletes. Forty-five percent of those stories were positive in tone, 40 percent were neutral, and only 15 percent were negative.
 
Interestingly, some global variations did appear. The front pages with the most positive story topics came from the Arabic world (68% positive, 32% neutral, 0% negative)- they were even more positive than the coverage in the Chinese press itself (67% positive, 32% neutral, 1% negative). Other Asian countries came in third in their positive treatment of China (61% positive, 29% neutral, 10% negative), followed by Latin America (59% positive, 29% neutral, 12% negative), the EU-Canada-USA-Australia (43% positive, 41% neutral, 17% negative), and Africa (21% positive, 56% neutral, 24% negative). (See the study itself for details about methodology and sampling error, etc..)
 
"The brilliantly conceived and staged opening ceremony attracted 'gee-whiz' coverage by newspapers around the world," said Susan Moeller, director of ICMPA and lead professor at the Salzburg Academy. "The press ignored the attending heads of state and even in most instances the parade of athletes, and focused on the new Chinese superpower. Coverage of the earthquake earlier in the summer had won China needed global sympathy. The choreography of lights, music and actors at the opening of the 2008 Games won China global admiration."
 
The Olympics study looked at other issues of coverage beyond attitudes towards China.
 
GENDER: The press in the Arabic world emphasized the achievements of male athletes and the African media focused on women athletes. The Chinese media was the most balanced in their coverage of male and female contestants.
 
Arab papers had the highest percentage of male-only images on their front pages (49 percent of the images featured men only, while 9 percent showed women only), African papers had more female-only images (28 percent showed women only and 17 percent showed men only), and the Chinese press had an almost equal number of images of male and female athletes: 21 percent of the front-page photos were of men, 19 percent were of women, and 33 percent showed both genders.
 
FEATURED COUNTRY: The press was ethnocentric - especially the Chinese media.
 
Across the world newspapers focused mainly on stories related to their own countries or peoples. But the level of ethnocentricity varied considerably. China overwhelming covered its own: 87 percent of the stories in the Chinese press focused on China. Half of the stories in the press from Latin America and the EU-Canada-USA-Australia regions emphasized the country of the newspaper. But only 18 percent of African front page stories highlighted the country of the newspaper. And a minuscule 4 percent of the papers from the Arabic world featured the country of the newspaper.
 
FEATURED SPORTS: Most countries focused on the sports in which their own athletes dominated (or at least athletes from their own regions), but there were some curious exceptions.
 
Overall, the schedule of games influenced what sports dominated coverage - swimming, gymnastics, weightlifting and basketball received the most attention around the world. Swimming, for example, had medal heats during that first week, although there were no basketball medal match-ups in that period. There was also correlation between medal records and which countries featured which sports. Both Egypt and Algeria won medals in judo - and judo was the most highlighted sport in newspapers from the Arab world (19% of the papers' front-page images of the Olympics focused on that sport). And both Argentina and Brazil won medals in soccer - and soccer was the second most featured sport in Latin America (after swimming). But no African nation won medals in beach volleyball or gymnastics even though those were two of the three most-featured sports by papers from the region. (Indeed, the only two African nations even participating in the beach volleyball competitions, South Africa and Angola, did not make it beyond the preliminary matches.)
 
About the Salzburg Academy
 
The Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change conducts research studies as an integral part of its mission. The Academy is an initiative of the Salzburg Global Seminar in Salzburg, Austria, and the International Center for Media and the Public Agenda, an academic institute for media and public policy teaching and research based at the University of Maryland 's Philip Merrill College of Journalism and affiliated with the University's School of Public Policy.
 
The Salzburg Academy is supported by funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations and other region-based funders.
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