China’s largest state-run media outlets are belatedly going big on the Wuhan virus Thursday morning, a week after the city at the center of the outbreak was placed under lockdown.
Both state broadcaster CCTV — known as CGTN internationally — and news agency Xinhua were leading their websites with multiple stories about the virus and efforts to stem its spread across the country.
The top story on both was President Xi Jinping ordering the military to aid in containing the virus.
While the Wuhan virus has been headline news around the world for weeks, its coverage in China has been more mixed. More independently-minded outlets, particularly Caixin, The Paper and the Beijing News, have been dedicating significant resources and space to the virus, but state and Communist Party outlets have been more restrained for the most. (Though some internationally focused publications, like the English-language Global Times, have been covering it extensively.)
For much of the crisis, the Wuhan virus was not the primary story on Xinwen Lianbo, CCTV’s main daily news broadcast, watched by hundreds of millions of people across China.
Last week, as Wuhan was being placed under lockdown and cases of the virus were spreading worldwide, the People’s Daily — the official mouthpiece of the Party — was still playing it well below the fold.
“The report that gets top billing at the site today is about a gathering yesterday of former senior officials ahead of the Spring Festival. It is essentially just a list of names, including Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao and Zhu Rongji, that ends with expressions of support for Xi Jinping,” wrote David Bandurski of Hong Kong University’s China Media Project last week.
“Why would such a story be emphasized over a national health crisis? The reason is not necessarily distraction, though the leadership certainly wishes everyone could look away. This story is there to serve the paramount purpose of reiterating Xi Jinping’s power and status, one of the primary roles played by Party media.”
With the Wuhan crisis expanding even more in the past week, and Xi taking personal control over the response, the approach to covering it in state media appears to have shifted — we can likely expect more banner headlines about Xi’s orders in the days to come.