Respectful Rivalry: US Media Coverage and Public Attitudes Toward Chinese Space Activity
The 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing this year was received with much fanfare. But it is easy to forget that the race to the Moon was couched in superpower rivalry under the specter of nuclear war. Scholars have long been aware of how the "enemy image" relates to international rivalry. Cinematic portrayals, for instance, of the Soviet Union to American audiences were overwhelmingly negative. However, attitudes toward outer space exploration are a puzzling exception, doubly so given states’ sensitivity to space’s obvious national security implications. Dominant theory predicts that technological advances in space should be zero-sum, yet this paper finds that American public attitudes are actually quite nuanced. Relying on an original dataset of New York Times space coverage spanning 1957-2019 and a randomized survey experiment, I find that (a) China receives comparable treatment to the Soviet Union in the American media, but that (b) both countries' achievements are framed in surprisingly praiseworthy terms. Moreover, media framing translates into public attitudes in unexpected ways: articles about adversary space programs cast in a positive light can raise support for the US program, while negative articles have no effect at all. In sum, news media has only a limited capacity to shape respondent attitudes, and negative framing can backfire. Public attitudes are mostly positive toward rival successes, suggesting that elites fight an uphill battle when stoking public fears about China in space. The findings contribute to scholarly understanding about the role of media in shaping public opinion, and suggest that cooperative space ventures -- which cut costs and enjoy public popularity -- may be more politically expedient than space races. The next phase of the study will consider how these dynamics differ for the rising space power by duplicating the analysis on Chinese media sources and native Chinese readers.