[OPINION] Racist rhetoric or free speech? Where does media ethics stand in the face of crisis?

In January 2020, at the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, Denmark’s newspaper Jyllands-Posten published a cartoon featuring China’s flag with virus-like illustrations in place of stars. The Chinese embassy in Denmark, in response, called the Danish newspaper’s satire “a humiliation to China and Chinese people,” saying that it showed no sympathy and empathy.

Denmark, on the other hand, refused to apologize, and its Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen retorted that the country had freedom of expression and was sticking to its core democratic values. Other Danish politicians and Danes on Twitter supported the paper’s right to publish such content.

Many other international newspapers’ coverage of the virus in the initial days had anti-China and even discriminatory connotations, which according to them were justified under the garb of freedom of expression and the freedom to critique. Take the Wall Street Journal’s published op-ed, for instance, titled “China Is The Real Sick Man Of Asia,” and Germany’s Der Spiegel’s headline “Coronavirus made in China.” 

In France, local newspaper Courrier Picard published the headline "New yellow peril?" using an old racist slur for the virus and its potential carriers — indirectly hinting at the Chinese people and the virus origin, China. This paper later apologized.  

Analyzing its country's media coverage of China’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis, a recent Australian study found out that “credible media outlets [in Australia, that despite being located in the southern hemisphere identifies as part of the ‘global West’] mostly framed China’s efforts in political and ideological terms, rather than as an issue of public health, while the tabloid media — including commercial television, shock jock radio, and newspapers — resorted to conspiratorial, racist, and Sinophobic positions.” The situation in other international media is more or less the same.

The media’s role in the crisis’ coverage was therefore contested, and repercussions were seen soon enough. But I also highly doubt that COVID would have been covered in a similar manner by these reputable papers and channels had the virus originated in any Western country!

Since the pandemic, statistics reveal a sharp rise in racism and hate crimes against people of Asian descent in the West. Human Rights Watch reports that “Asians have been targets of derogatory language in media reports and statements by politicians as well as on social media platforms, where hate speech related to COVID-19 also appears to have spread extensively.” Meanwhile, a recent Pew Research Center survey reveals that a vast majority of Asian American adults, as much as 81%, say violence against them is rising in the US. The case of the Atlanta shootings is on the record.

What may seem as a credible and morally acceptable way to cover the crisis a year ago, in the backdrop of these recent developments, should ruffle some feathers. With media having the power to shape and influence public opinion, it only becomes evident in this pandemic that there’s more to just having the freedom to write and publish. It is a global responsibility to serve humanity and suppress stereotypes and xenophobia.

During the crisis, renowned media publications have failed to work towards the collective good. The intensely critical coverage of China and its handling of the crisis, instead of showing solidarity, adds fuel to the fire. As a result, racism got a boost apart from the fact that populist leaders like Trump were already nourishing it. Virus-related coverage also seemed influenced by politics and a nation’s ties with China, rather than focused on the health emergency.

The technological boom and greater accessibility to news across borders have given rise to what communication scholars call "global journalism," which demands global, humanistic ethics while covering news. Scholar Stephen Reese calls it a form of journalism whose “newsgathering practice orients beyond national boundaries in a deterritorialized fashion,” implying that digital technologies are making national boundaries insignificant for news events, and that the latter’s reach is now "global," its coverage seen through an international, pluralistic lens. 

But despite news transgressing borders and being more proximate than ever, the media’s coverage still seems to be bounded by national interests, deeply ingrained ideologies, and cultural affiliations. Media outlets need to become more globally minded and free of prejudices, and “seek to transcend,” as scholar and ethics author Stephan Ward points out, “at least, partially, their parochial attachments.” – Rappler.com

Allia Bukhari is a journalist from Pakistan and an Erasmus Mundus scholar, currently doing her Masters in Journalism, Media, and Globalization at Aarhus University, Denmark. She has worked for major English newspapers in Pakistan such as the Express Tribune and The News.