Representation of autism in Vietnamese online news media between 2006 and 2016 : a thesis submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the Doctor of Philosophy degree in Communication and Journalism at Massey University, Wellington, New Zealand

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Being a parent advocate of the rights of children with autism, I have witnessed how the Vietnamese news media perpetuate misrepresentation, misinformation and disinformation about autism. As the first media study of its kind in Vietnam, this thesis set out to describe, interpret and explain the issue of misrepresentation, misinformation and disinformation about autism in the Vietnamese online news media between 2006 and 2016. The literature review in chapter 1 showed that existing studies of media representation of autism elsewhere in the world mostly used manual content and framing analysis. These revealed that autism was often represented as a medical, family or social problem, mediated by damaging stereotypes and stigmas. However, the existing literature lacked explanatory depth in illuminating the macro, meso and micro contexts that shaped the media representation. This thesis drew on the combination of cultural political economy, corpus framing analysis and critical discourse analysis to understand and explain how and why Vietnamese media and news sources shaped the meanings about autism in media discourse. This mix of quantitative and qualitative approaches demonstrated its relevance in examining complex issues, which required multiple political, economic, social and cultural reasonings. Theoretically, the synergy of cultural political economy and critical discourse analysis was also resourceful in problematising and explaining the constitutive relationship between discursive structures and social reality, as discussed in chapter 2. The cultural political economy analysis of Vietnam’s state, economy and society, including its media industry, in chapters 3 and 4 contextualised the empirical analysis of media texts in later chapters. The computerized corpus framing analysis in chapter 5 provided a broad thematic overview of the media discourse, as well as captures the voice and visibility of different actors in the corpus of media coverage about autism by the 11 most popular Vietnamese online news media outlets from 2006 to 2016. The critical discourse analysis of chapters 6, 7 and 8 then examined the ideological implications and power relations of three important frames which represented autism as, variously, a social policy issue, a medical problem or family story. The thesis found that Vietnamese online news media rarely framed autism as a social policy issue in a deliberate way, even though people with autism accounted for approximately 1 to 2% of the population and autism-related matters touch millions of family members and social actors. State officials were strikingly absent from the media coverage, indicating that the media did not hold institutional stakeholders accountable, even though different Vietnamese laws have stipulated the need for universal education, integration and facilitation of individuals with disabilities in social setting. This was a Vietnam-specific perspective which contributed to the diverse global media literature on autism representation. This study showed autism was predominantly represented in the medical model as a disease that needed to be cured, rather than as a life-long disability that needed social facilitation. Doctors and service providers had the most prominent voices in the media discourse. When professionals acted as the major media sources, the critical discourse analysis demonstrated how they abused their power and access to the media by making misleading claims, sometimes overstating the efficacy of their treatment methods for their own commercial interests. In family stories, this study showed that individuals on the autism spectrum were stereotyped with troubling behaviours that caused terror, pain and even family breakup, but they rarely had the chance to speak for themselves. Media representations of family narratives were also ridden with a medicalized language about intervention and normalization efforts by “heroic” warrior mothers. The pressure to fit in with social norms was so great that parents, especially mothers, set out to fight against autism and normalize individuals on the autism spectrum, rather than accept their life-long challenges and embrace their diversity. This finding was unique to Vietnam, given its collective culture, centred on conformity, belonging and submission of the minority to the majority’s expectations. This thesis contributes to both the scholarly body of knowledge in media and communication studies about autism representation and to the generally under-developed field of media and journalism research in Vietnam. It also suggests what solutions are available to address current problems in media representation about autism in Vietnam.
Listed in 2020 Dean's List of Exceptional Theses
Autism spectrum disorders, Press coverage, Vietnam, Mass media and people with disabilities, Online journalism, Dean's List of Exceptional Theses