Why Are News Outlets Still Using so Many Photos of Asian People for Coronavirus Stories?

Why Are News Outlets Still Using so Many Photos of Asian People for Coronavirus Stories?

Coronavirus may have spread from China, but given that it is now a worldwide problem, why are so many news outlets continuing to use photographs of Asian people to illustrate their reporting? Is this adding to the issues regarding xenophobia since the outbreak a few months ago?

This question is raised by Nylah Burton over on Vox who argues that the Covid-19 outbreak has led photo editors to a tendency to veer towards racist tropes when choosing images to accompany articles. As she explains, “the outbreak is not confined to — nor can be blamed on — Asian people.”

Various examples are cited, including one instance where a story about an outbreak in Manhattan was illustrated using a photograph of an Asian man wearing a face mask in Queens. Given that the outbreak has gone far beyond Asia and that xenophobia and racism have surfaced as a result of the virus’s origins, there’s a good argument that news outlets should take steps to avoid further stigmatization. 

Twitter was quick to cite multiple examples:

Burton is not suggesting that editors and outlets are racist, but it raises the question: does the visual culture of news reporting contribute to xenophobia, and would a change in reporting help to create a sense of unity in fighting coronavirus rather than engendering a feeling of them and us? Leave your thoughts below.

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Mark Wyatt's picture

Because China is still the hardest hit BY FAR? Korea is fourth today. Iran second, Italy third.

Alex Yakimov's picture

Korea has 5.6 times less fatality rate then China.

Johnny Rico's picture

South Korea has been very proactive with testing and their hospitals haven't had to triage patients due to their medical infrastructure being able to meet the demand.

Alex Yakimov's picture

Fan of Heinlein?

That's assuming the numbers from China are anywhere near correct or credible which is questionable since it's become a sensitive topic in the fundamental xenophobia of China's ruling apparatus, and that everyone is measuring lethality the same way (turns out that's not trivial either). It looks more like China has simply stopped reporting, and it could work out either way.

In early statistics, Iran started out with a case lethality of almost 15%.

Mark Wyatt's picture

What did you expect me to say? Everyone except you are racist? :)

Dakota Brown's picture

I'm pretty sure that because this is where the virus originated from, as well as the fact that there is still by far the most cases and deaths in China. If I was a gambling man, I'd bet these reasons could contribute the their use of these photos?

And as the propoganda grows with the first place to get hit being China, the vast majority of content produced that is now just circling around gaining traction was first created in light of, yep, it origin.

Tony Clark's picture

Because it originated in China and the media wants to place the blame on them?

jim hughes's picture

I think they do that without consciously intending to. They know that scare stores about China sell well.

Nonsense. Most news outlets completely downplay just what a bad actor China is.

When was the last time an Asian country (e.g., China) improved the sanitary conditions of their wet markets, which is where these viruses emanate? When was the last time a US news outlet blamed the wet markets?


I guess it would really depends on WHEN the photo editors edited the images. If it was 2 months ago most would be Chinese faces, but if it was yesterday, they would be Italian faces. Is Nylah Burton keeping stats of when these images were edited?

David Pavlich's picture

Why not ask the photographers or the entities that they work for instead of injecting racism into the equation? This is just typical of the world we live in. Wake up, scan the news, look for a reason to be offended....it's an industry now. Good grief!

William Nicholson's picture

So true. Need any toilet paper? If so ring me up and I'll send you a roll or two. Be nice to turn on news and see a happy story time to time. Don't think anyone has to look far to be offended.

jim hughes's picture


i don't think this has anything to do with racism. it shows images of people with a mask so it quickly relates to the virus. Still today you can walk in Paris centre and almost no one wear a mask. So I guess showing an image like that would speak less to the audience.

jim hughes's picture

They're doing this because they're churning out scare stories as fast as they can, on a 10 minute news cycle, and don't have time to even think about what they're doing, let alone what photos they're using.

Daniel Frost's picture

I agree there's no reason to blame Chinese people for the outbreak at least not totally the poor hygiene practices in china didn't help but the lions share of the blame sits on the shoulders of the Chinese communist Party. They refused to acknowledge the virus and arrested whistle blowers in the most critical time of the outbreak. Without the heavy handed censorship of the authoritarian Chinese government this could've been contained to just Wuhan and not a global pandemic as it is now....

William Nicholson's picture

Not to make this political, I agree with you and this is proof communist socialism kills those who have no voice. We will all pay for this one way or another and yet none of us asked for this. Not sure about you or others, but i am already feeling the effect in my business as people are panicking and cancelling the scheduled work already. Going to take a major hit in the wallet and may put me out of business due to the fear mongering the MSM keeps broadcasting. Stay calm and practice good hygiene people. Hold strong people.

Keith Meinhold's picture

And yet here we are in the USA with an administration the is muzzling healthcare institutions, failing to take action (testing), blaming other countries and outright lying, causing more panic.

You go ahead and run with that. It's an old, tired, empty argument. You guys have got to find another obsession. The only panic that's being created is by people like you. We've had 40 deaths and 17 of those were in a retirement home in Washington. Calm down, go nuzzle with your toilet paper stock pile.

Daniel Frost's picture

This admin is and was trapped between a rock and a hard place. On one hand quick action is needed but NOT creating a panic (the media is responsible for the panic) is important for mobilization. As far as blaming other counties let me make this clear NOTHING WOULD'VE NEEDED TO BE DONE IF THE CCP DIDN'T DROP THE BALL. This is 100% the fault of the Chinese government. You would have an easier time blaming trump for the sun exploding.

Jason Flynn's picture

To remind me to bookmark Petapixel?

I used to come here to get away from the news and read about my hobby instead.

Agree. It's pathetic the crap this site churns out.

Leigh Miller's picture

It's called selling the sizzle...not the steak. Make it about them, not us and sensationalize it.

Jozef Povazan's picture

Who wears masks to protect themselves even if there is not corona virus in the streets? Chinese people do, and that is a fact since as I live in Vancouver BC you could see it even before , not that frequently like now but yes, it is Asians who do so. Had a meeting downtown yesterday there was not a single caucasian person in the street wearing it around me, Chinese were... Does this answer your question Andy? It is because it is a fact you can see around in the streets and there are masses of them in certain regions doing so, so that it is why they are in the most pictures. This is 1+1 grade 1 math answer.

William Nicholson's picture

Guess if I lived in China with such poor air quality I to would wear a mask or a filtered fresh air respirator.

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