Setting the Agenda on Vietnam – How Foreign Mainstream Media Coverage Relates to a Country’s Reputation

Nguyen, Thu Hien
Smith, Philippa
Rupar, Verica
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Doctor of Philosophy
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Auckland University of Technology

Images of war victims and references to the wars that ended more than 40 years ago still dominate Vietnam’s international news coverage. The country, to some extent, is perceived as a damaged one, in spite of its significant economic and social development (World Bank, 2017). In fact, few people have direct experience with foreign countries and world events. Mainstream media then become the main source of information for many people, setting the agenda for what they should think about (McCoombs, 2014). This has led to concerns that mainstream media organisations and journalists influence people’s perceptions about a nation (Lippmann, 1922) and that tourism and investments can be affected in the wake of extremely negative headlines (Go & Govers, 2011). This study sought to investigate how foreign mainstream media relates to a country’s reputation, using the case study of Vietnam. The reasoning behind the study, therefore, is that a country’s reputation is potentially at risk depending on how it is represented by international news organisations. To achieve the objective stated above, I adopted the mixed-methodological approach in this research project, combining quantitative and qualitative analyses, with a suitable set of analytical tools including quantitative media content analysis, framing analysis and in-depth interviews. The findings in the case study of Vietnam show that there is a relationship between mainstream media and general attitudes of survey respondents in the Country Brand Index (CBI) toward Vietnam in both analysed periods of 2012-13 and 2014-15 in terms of general tones and topics of interest. The mainstream media coverage of Vietnam, mainly focusing on safety and security, business environment and the socio-environmental issues of the country, was negative. Their articles revolved around these issues, in spite of the reality of the events taking place in Vietnam. The CBI’s respondents also expressed their negative attitudes on these issues. Furthermore, the findings of the study indicate that the media coverage of the war in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s had a huge impact on changing the whole situation when people around the world were firmly against the war conducted by the United States (US). This agenda-setting appears to continue many decades later, as the war is consistently referred to. Vietnam, therefore, appears to have an image problem when it comes to its past conflicts. There is a need for the country to be seen in a new and more positive light if it wishes to expand its trade, economy and tourism. And, as is seen in my quantitative and qualitative analysis, a gradual shift in media coverage and people’s common perceptions of the country seems to be occurring. The steps in which the salience of issues and changes in them move from the media agenda to public agenda reflect the agenda-setting process. My findings support the view that agenda-setting plays a powerful role in selecting not only objects for attention but also attributes for characterising those objects (McCombs, 2004) and how the news media “can actually bundle different objects and attributes and make these bundles of elements salient in the public’s mind simultaneously” (Guo, Vu & McCombs, 2012, p. 55). The research has contributed further knowledge about how foreign media set the agenda when it comes to covering the nation of Vietnam, how this relates to the country’s image, and whether it adequately reflects the nation and the improvements that have taken place in the last few decades.

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