STUDY: Media and Modern Racism: Understanding Anti-Asian Attitudes and Behaviors During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Lars Willnat

Lars Willnat


John Ben Snow Endowed Research Chair

Who worked on the project?

Jian Shi, doctoral student and Lars Willnat, John Ben Snow Research Professor.

What was the focus of the project?

According to a recent report by Stop AAPI Hate, more than 9,000 anti-Asian incidents have been reported across the United States since the coronavirus pandemic began. These anti-Asian incidents represented about 16% of all reported hate crimes in 2020, making Asian Americans the third-most racially targeted group, following black Americans and Jewish Americans (Donlevy, 2020).

In light of this unprecedented rise in anti-Asian hate crimes, our study examines how exposure to partisan news media and the growing political polarization of the American public might affect xenophobia toward Asian Americans through perceptions of symbolic and realistic threat.

What questions did your project seek to address? What were the research questions, hypotheses, etc?

We argue that the consistent media coverage of President Trump’s attacks on China and his frequent use of discriminatory terms such as “Chinese virus” or “Kung Flu” has boosted anti-Asian attitudes by increasing perceived levels of symbolic and realistic threats associated with Asian Americans. Specifically, we hypothesize that the news media can “prime” audiences to stigmatize Asian Americans through repeated displays of prejudicial text and images of Asian Americans.

We also argue that this mediated stigmatization is associated with higher levels of perceived symbolic (values or beliefs) and realistic (economic and physical well-being) threat coming from Asian Americans, which, in turn, might increase anti-Asian attitudes.

What were your findings?

The study is based on a national online survey with 1,200 randomly selected U.S. adults conducted in August 2021.

Our findings indicate that exposure to news about the pandemic on Fox News and social media was associated with higher levels of anti-Asian stigmatization related to the pandemic.

What do you think are the implications for the discipline/profession?

As predicted, this 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. Specifically, more than one-fifth of respondents expressed that they had sometimes or frequently felt fear, nervousness, or discomfort toward people of Asian descent.

This study has received a 2021 CUSE Grant.