How can authoritarian regimes effectively control information to maintain regime legitimacy in times of crisis? We argue that media framing constitutes a subtle and sophisticated information control strategy in authoritarian regimes and plays a critical role in steering public opinion and cultivating an image of competent government during a tremendous crisis. Using structural topic models (STM), we conduct a textual analysis of more than 4,600 news reports produced by seven Chinese media outlets during the COVID-19 pandemic. We find that Chinese media, instructed by the propaganda authorities, used a heroism frame to feature frontline medics’ sacrifices when saving others in need and resorted to a contrast frame to highlight the poor performance of the United States in the fight against COVID-19. We also show that both state and commercial media outlets used these two frames, though the tone of commercial media coverage was generally more moderate than the state media version.
Bibliographical noteWe thank Editor Stephan Haggard as well as two anonymous reviewers for their constructive suggestions. We also thank Jamie Druckman for his valuable comments.
Copyright © The Author(s), 2022. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of the East Asia Institute
- Authoritarian regimes
- information control
- text analysis