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(Media Review) The Accidental Catalyst: Examining Pressreader-aggregated Articles on How Disney’s Mulan Sparked Media Campaigns Addressing the Plight of Uighur Muslims

A media review for my Media Theory class analyzing the increased Uighur Muslims coverage after the release of the Disney live-action film “Mulan”

After the straight-to-streaming release of Disney’s Mulan in the Disney+ platform in the U.S. and other selected countries on Sept. 4, 2020 (‘Mulan (2020)’ [IMDb], n.d.), this live-action adaptation of the Chinese legend came under fire after viewers discovered the acknowledgment of the government security agency in the Chinese province of Xinjiang in the film’s closing credits. Xinjiang authorities are accused of the cultural genocide of about 1 million people, mainly the ethnic minority group Uighur Muslims (Wood, 2020). People around the world initiated calls to boycott the film saying Disney turned a blind eye to police brutality, racial injustice, and mass incarceration with their production decisions (BBC Staff, 2020). 

This media review focuses on the impact of the production’s location filming leading to the acknowledgment of Xinjiang authorities in the film’s credits in the coverage of the larger issue of human rights abuse of the Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang. Using Pressreader, a subscription-based digital newsstand offering unlimited access to local and international newspapers and magazines in more than 120 countries, it intends to find out if Mulan sparked stronger global and American campaigns against China’s oppression of the Uighurs, considering the franchise’s scope in the film industry and popular culture in a global scale. Using specific keywords and search filters in Pressreader, this media review examined the coverage of the issue before, during, and after the film’s release (Soriano, 2020).

Keywords and Search Filters

In categorizing the Pressreader-aggregated articles into two (articles about the case of the Uighur Muslims and Mulan articles addressing the case of the Uighur Muslims), this study tallied the number of English-language articles aggregated by Pressreader using appropriate keywords and search filters. It is expected that each of the three-word phrases selected for the two sets of Pressreader keywords would yield results nearest to the issue at hand and provide sufficient data on how the film’s release influenced the media coverage of the issue. 

The two keywords used were: 1) Uighur Muslims China; and 2) Uighur Muslims Mulan. The search filters used were: 1) All Publications; 2) American Publications; and 3) English Language. The research focused on Pressreader’s aggregated English-language articles for all publications, as well as American publications, since Mulan is a Hollywood production targeting a global market. The dates covered were from Aug. 1 (over a month before the release of Mulan) to Oct. 17, 2020 (over a month after the release of Mulan). 

Number of Aggregated Articles Based on Targeted Dates

Taking into account the film’s official release date, targeted dates between Aug. 1 to Oct. 17, 2020 made it possible to adequately examine the spike on media coverage for the Uighur Muslims issue during specific time frames relevant to the study.

The targeted dates for tallying aggregated articles were: 1) Aug. 1 to Sept. 3, 2020 (34 days before the film’s release); 2) Sept. 4 to 10, 2020 (first week of the film’s release); 3) Sept. 11 to 17, 2020 (second week of the film’s release); and 4) Sept. 18 to Oct. 17, 2020 (the next 30 days after the first two weeks of the film’s release).

The focus on the first and second weeks of the film’s release was due to the expected media coverage provided for new film releases, especially for a big Hollywood franchise such as Mulan. Meanwhile, the month before and the month after the film’s release offered enough room to see trends, compute statistical data, and make comparisons on how media covered the issue. It is generally expected that the use of the two keywords aggregated articles raised the issue, which may or may not be the main topic discussed, but nevertheless the issue would still be addressed in the articles and more people may be informed about the plight of the Uighur Muslims in China.

Data Encoding, Examination, and Analysis
Articles in All Publications, English
Keywords8/1 to 9/3/20, (34-day coverage)9/4 to 9/10/20, (7-day coverage)9/11 to 9/17/20, (7-day coverage)9/18 to 10/17/20, (30-day coverage)
Uighur Muslims China2,8078598511,396
Uighur Muslims Mulan01,171500127
Table 1. Distribution of Articles Aggregated by Pressreader in All Publications (English) from Aug. 1 to Oct. 17, 2020
  1. Uighur Muslims China Keyword in All Publications (English)

34 days before the film’s release, the Uighur Muslims China keyword with All Publications and English Language search filters aggregated 2,807 articles (average of 82.56 articles per day) via Pressreader. During the first 7 days of the film’s release, 859 articles (average of 122.71 articles per day) were aggregated. By the next 7 days851 articles (average of 121.57 articles per day) were aggregated. Within the next 30 days1,396 articles (average of 46.53 articles per day) were aggregated.

This showed that global media coverage of the issue increased within the first two weeks of the film’s availability at Disney+. Significant media coverage was also seen a month before the film’s official launch, which means certain media outlets were already covering the issue back then. Meanwhile, the third week after the film’s opening showed a big drop of more than 80% from the prior week’s coverage.

Articles in All Publications, English
Keywords8/1 to 9/3/20, (34-day coverage)9/4 to 9/10/20, (7-day coverage)9/11 to 9/17/20, (7-day coverage)9/18 to 10/17/20, (30-day coverage)
Uighur Muslims China82.56 articles/day122.71 articles/day121.57 articles/day46.53 articles/day
Uighur Muslims MulanN/A167.29 articles/day71.43 articles/day4.23 articles/day
Table 2. Average Number of Articles Per Day, as Aggregated by Pressreader in All Publications (English) from Aug. 1 to Oct. 17, 2020

2. Uighur Muslims Mulan Keyword in All Publications (English)

34 days before the film’s release, the Uighur Muslims Mulan keyword with All Publications and English Language search filters didn’t aggregate any article via Pressreader. During the first 7 days of the film’s release, 1,171 articles (average of 167.29 articles per day) were aggregated. By the next 7 days500 articles (average of 71.43 articles per day) were aggregated. Within the next 30 days127 articles (average of 4.23 articles per day) were aggregated.

This showed that global media coverage for the film began and readily peaked during the first week of the film’s release. Coverage significantly dropped to more than 50% by the second week. Coverage turned out very minimal afterwards. There was no coverage of the issue prior to the film’s release. At that time, people haven’t seen the film’s closing credits yet.

Articles in American Publications, English
Keywords8/1 to 9/3/20, (34-day coverage)9/4 to 9/10/20, (7-day coverage)9/11 to 9/17/20, (7-day coverage)9/18 to 10/17/20, (30-day coverage)
Uighur Muslims China2,122778490870
Uighur Muslims Mulan05149612
Table 3. Distribution of Articles Aggregated by Pressreader in American Publications (English) from Aug. 1 to Oct. 17, 2020

3. Uighur Muslims China Keyword in American Publications (English)

34 days before the film’s release, the Uighur Muslims China keyword with American Publications and English Language search filters aggregated 2,122 articles (average of 62.41 articles per day) via Pressreader. During the first 7 days of the film’s release, 778 articles (average of 111.14 articles per day) were aggregated. By the next 7 days490 articles (average of 70 articles per day) were aggregated. Within the next 30 days, 870 articles (average of 29 articles per day) were aggregated.

The spike in coverage during the first week of the film’s release didn’t last long. However, a slight increase in coverage by the first month of the film’s release happened and this coincided with certain global political events that this study reported under the “Media Content Summary” section.

Articles in American Publications, English
Keywords8/1 to 9/3/20, (34-day coverage)9/4 to 9/10/20, (7-day coverage)9/11 to 9/17/20, (7-day coverage)9/18 to 10/17/20, (30-day coverage)
Uighur Muslims China62.41 articles/day111.14 articles/day70 articles/day29 articles/day
Uighur Muslims MulanN/A73.43 articles/day13.71 articles/day0.4 articles/day
Table 4. Average Number of Articles Per Day, as Aggregated by Pressreader

4. Uighur Muslims Mulan Keyword in American Publications (English)

34 days before the film’s release, the Uighur Muslims Mulan keyword with American Publications and English Language search filters didn’t aggregate any article via Pressreader. During the first 7 days of the film’s release, 514 articles (average of 73.43 articles per day) were aggregated. By the next 7 days, 96 articles (average of 13.71 articles per day) were aggregated. Within the next 30 days, only 12 articles (average of 0.4 articles per day) were aggregated.

The coverage only peaked during the first week of the film’s release and the rest of the covered dates were not significantly impacted by world events or similar topics.

Summary Report for the Two Pressreader Keywords
Uighur Muslims China
Search Filters8/1 to 9/3/20, (34-day coverage)9/4 to 9/10/20, (7-day coverage)9/11 to 9/17/20, (7-day coverage)9/18 to 10/17/20, (30-day coverage)
Articles in All Publications, English82.56 articles/day122.71 articles/day121.57 articles/day46.53 articles/day
Articles in American Publications, English62.41 articles/day (75.59% of all publications, English)111.14 articles/day (90.57% of all publications, English)70    articles/day (57.58% of all publications, English)29    articles/day (62.33% of all publications, English)
Table 5. Average Number of Articles Per Day, as Aggregated by Pressreader for Uighur Muslims China Keyword from Aug. 1 to Oct. 17, 2020
Uighur Muslims Mulan
Search Filters8/1 to 9/3/20, (34-day coverage)9/4 to 9/10/20, (7-day coverage)9/11 to 9/17/20, (7-day coverage)9/18 to 10/17/20, (30-day coverage)
Articles in All Publications, EnglishN/A167.29 articles/day71.43 articles/day4.23  articles/day
Articles in American Publications, EnglishN/A73.43 articles/day (43.89% of all publications, English)19.19 articles/day(18.73% of all publications, English)0.4   articles/day (9.46% of all publications, English)
Table 6. Average Number of Articles Per Day, as Aggregated by Pressreader for Uighur Muslims Mulan Keyword from Aug. 1 to Oct. 17, 2020

The study showed American publications contributed the most articles for the Uighur Muslims China keyword (75.59%, 90.57%, 57.58%, and 62.33% shares in all publications). Ironically, American publications contributed much less articles for the Uighur Muslims Mulan keyword (43.89%, 18.73%, and 9.46% shares in all publications), which may be attributed to Disney’s machinery positively promoting the film to the American public.

The Uighur Muslims China keyword had more coverage of the issue a month prior to the film’s release compared to a month after the film’s release. Coverage was generally affected by certain world events. The Uighur Muslims Mulan keyword had minimal coverage a month after the film’s release, while the month prior to the film’s release had no coverage at all. The peak of the coverage of the film coincided with this keyword’s coverage of the Uighurs issue.

Media Content Summary: Uighur Muslims China Keyword

For the Uighur Muslims China keyword in All Publications, articles dated before the film’s release mostly focused on Chinese trade issues, forced medications in Xinjiang during the COVID-19 lockdown, political tensions in Hong Kong, China’s invitation of Muslim press to Xinjiang camps to counter reports of abuse, and back-to-school laptop shortage in the U.S. mentioning Xinjiang’s forced labor issues.

Leading to the film’s release until its first two weeks of availability, most reports were about slave trade, uprooted ethnic minorities, Hong Kong protests, world leaders condemning China’s ethnic cleansing attempts, public’s politically inclined Mulan criticisms including the film’s closing credits issue, calls for boycott of the film, Xinjiang detention camps, economic and diplomatic reports about China’s oppression of the Uighurs, and oppositions to the 2022 Winter Olympics to be held in Beijing.

Although the third week of September had minimal coverage, a slight increase in coverage by late September to early October coincided with the news of China getting a United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) seat, U.S. government’s criticism of religious freedom in China, and American lawmakers urging media companies including Netflix and Disney to rethink their collaborations with China. Another spike happened between Oct. 14 to 17, 2020, which covered statements of political leaders including U.S. National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in relation to China’s actions against the Uighurs and the Hong Kong protesters.

For the Uighur Muslims China keyword in American Publications, articles dated before the film’s release mostly focused on Chinese trade issues, forced medications in Xinjiang, and back-to-school laptop shortage in the U.S. and its Xinjiang connection. Bulk of the coverage for the first week of the film’s release focused on the U.K. public tribunal’s plan to probe Uighur genocide, criticisms on the film’s closing credits, and boycott of the film. By the second week, coverage focused on Mulan criticisms and trade measures against China. By the third week onwards, coverage focused on satellite images of Xinjiang detention sites and trade issues. The latest coverage was only up to Oct. 8 focusing on western countries’ condemnation of Chinese policies and oppositions to the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. No articles about China getting a UNHRC seat were aggregated.

Media Content Summary: Uighur Muslims Mulan Keyword

For the Uighur Muslims Mulan keyword, no articles dated before the film’s release were aggregated. The first week of the film’s release saw a spike in coverage for both All Publications and American Publications filters. However, the second week saw a significant drop in the number of aggregated articles for both filters. Most articles in both filters focused on Hollywood’s collaborations with China, Disney authorities’ statements about the issues thrown at Mulan, box office reports, and people’s mixed reactions about the film including the acknowledgment of Xinjiang in the film’s credits.

Conclusion

Media coverage of Mulan generally influenced the public discussion of the plight of the Uighur Muslims. Many Pressreader-aggregated articles featured statements by world leaders and advocacy groups in relation to the main issue within the time frame of the film’s release. It was expected that Disney’s machinery for the film’s marketing and promotion would focus on the positive aspects of the production, but this didn’t stop people from expressing their political views against the issues at hand. 

Mulan being an epic production of a media conglomerate tends to divert the public from the real concerns the world is not prepared to address with a compelling call to action. As a product of the culture industry, it is packaged to be consumed as a form of distraction to more serious concerns through entertainment and spectacle (Adorno & Horkheimer, 2012; Debord, 2012). Yet, there is irony to this as Mulan, for all the political controversies attached to it, became an unexpected stimulus to address China’s oppression of the Uighur Muslims through the significant increase in global and American media coverage of the issue during the first and second weeks of its release. If not for the film’s Xinjiang closing credits issue, there may be less media mileage addressing the current plight of the Uighur Muslims. This motion picture therefore became an accidental catalyst for stronger media campaigns addressing China’s human rights abuses against the Uighur Muslims.

References

Adorno, Theodor, & Horkheimer, Max. (2012). The culture industry: Enlightenment as mass deception. In Meenakshi Gigi Durham, & Douglas Kellner (Eds.), Media and cultural studies: KeyWorks (2nd ed., pp. 41–72). Malden and Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

BBC Staff. (2020, September 7). Disney criticised for filming Mulan in China’s Xinjiang province. BBC. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-54064654

Bender, Chris, Nagenda, Tendo, Reed, Jason, & Weiner, Jake. (Producers), & Caro, Niki (Director). (2020). Mulan [Motion Picture]. United States: Disney.

Debord, Guy. (2012). The commodity as spectacle. In Meenakshi Gigi Durham, & Douglas Kellner (Eds.), Media and cultural studies: KeyWorks (2nd ed., pp. 117–121). Malden, MA and Oxford, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

IMDb. (n.d.). Mulan (2020). Retrieved from https://www.imdb.com/title/tt4566758/

Soriano, Rianne Hill. (2020). Mulan Uighur Muslims Media Report: Pressreader Research. Retrieved from https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/1WiYtcOOLZSWD4RYqYfTRn83ZHJbplhgK?usp=sharing

Wood, Bryan. (2020). What is happening with the Uighurs in China? PBS. Retrieved from https://www.pbs.org/newshour/features/uighurs/

Web Resources

Disney+: https://www.disneyplus.com/

Pressreader: https://www.pressreader.com/

Reviewed by Rianne Hill Soriano

University of the Philippines Diliman, Philippines

Rianne Hill Soriano
Rianne Hill Soriano
Rianne is a director, writer, educator, and consultant in film and commercial productions. From mainstream essentials to independent flair, she knows the drill in making entertaining and well-meaning productions. She can lead a pack passionate about extreme action and technological edge; she can breathe an endearing and sentimental style for a team with a sweet disposition.
https://www.riannehillsoriano.com

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