Understand corporate social responsibility from an agenda setting perspective: a cross-national analysis of newspaper using computer-assisted content analysis

Yafei Zhang (Paul and Virginia Engler College of Business, West Texas A&M University, Canyon, Texas, USA)
Chuqing Dong (Advertising and Public Relations Department, College of Communication Arts and Sciences, Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan, USA)

Journal of Global Responsibility

ISSN: 2041-2568

Article publication date: 18 May 2021

Issue publication date: 25 May 2021




This study aims to explore multifaceted corporate social responsibility (CSR) covered in popular English newspapers in the UK, USA, mainland China and Hong Kong from 2000 to 2016 via a computer-assisted analytical approach. This study moves the understanding of CSR away from corporate self-reporting to the mass media and raises interesting questions about the role of the news media in presenting CSR as a multifaceted, socially constructed concept.


Data were retrieved from CSR-related news articles from 2000 to 2016 that were archived in the LexisNexis database. Guided by the theoretical framework of agenda setting, a computer-assisted content analysis (Latent Dirichlet Allocation) was used to analyze 4,487 CSR-related articles from both business and non-business news sources. Analysis of variance was used to compare salient CSR topics in each country/region.


This study identifies newspapers as an alternate to corporations’ attempts to distribute CSR information and construct CSR meaning. The findings revealed that the news communicates a variety of CSR issues that are aligned or beyond what CSR was defined in corporate CSR reporting, as suggested in previous studies. In addition, CSR news coverages differ between the business and nonbusiness news sources. Furthermore, the media tone of CSR coverage significantly differed across the regions and between the business and nonbusiness newspapers.

Social implications

Emerging topics in CSR news coverage, such as business education, could help companies identify untapped CSR realms in the market.


This study contributes to CSR communication research by adding a non-corporate perspective regarding what CSR means and should be focused on. The news media presents CSR using a heterogeneous approach as they not only provide surface reports on corporations’ CSR activities but also offer in-depth discussions.



Zhang, Y. and Dong, C. (2021), "Understand corporate social responsibility from an agenda setting perspective: a cross-national analysis of newspaper using computer-assisted content analysis", Journal of Global Responsibility, Vol. 12 No. 2, pp. 262-286. https://doi.org/10.1108/JGR-08-2020-0084



Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2021, Emerald Publishing Limited


The past three decades have witnessed a fast growth of societal expectations for ethical and responsible businesses, which has made CSR no longer optional to companies in the global market. Recent statistics show that the CSR reporting rate of the world’s largest 250 companies had significant growth since the late 1990s, from 35% in 1999 to 93% in 2017 (KPMG, 2017). Although CSR is still facing ongoing debate on its definitions, meanings and values (Dahlsrud, 2008), it is agreed that CSR is a socially constructed concept and meaning is largely dependent on how it is communicated (Du et al., 2010; O’Connor and Ihlen, 2018). Communication offers a way for the public to enter the CSR dialogue, which fosters the “conceptualization, construction and negotiation” of CSR among the stakeholders (O’Connor and Ihlen, 2018). Through effective communications, corporate endeavors are delivered to stakeholders’ attention and upon their evaluation (Du et al., 2010).

However, the extant research on CSR communication overwhelmingly relies on corporations’ self-reporting sources, such as CSR and financial annual reports (Hou and Reber, 2011; Michelon et al., 2015; Milne and Gray, 2007) and official information on corporate websites (Chapple and Moon, 2005; Park et al., 2017). Scholars criticized that the self-reported CSR image focuses on the symbolic intention rather than substantive results (Husillos et al., 2011). In addition, corporate self-reported CSR could be “greenwashing” and manipulative as it may overly address the positive CSR actions that bias public perceptions (Mahoney et al., 2013). Therefore, corporate-centered CSR research is problematic. From a public’s perspective, people receive CSR messages from both corporate and non-corporate sources. News media plays a significant role in the process of conveying CSR to the general public (Buhr and Grafström, 2007; Zhang and Swanson, 2006; Grafström and Windell, 2011). News media actively presents and circulates knowledge (Mazza and Alvarez, 2000) and urges corporations to act and make changes (Deephouse and Heugens, 2009). Among various news media, newspapers are considered a common and reliable source to learn about corporate behaviors (Buhr and Grafström, 2007).

The role of the newspaper as an important mediator in conveying corporate behaviors to the public can be explained through the lens of agenda setting theory. The core proposition of agenda setting is the transfer of issue salience from the media to the public (McCombs and Shaw, 1972). According to agenda setting theory, the media can set two levels of agendas, which influence public opinions about the topic salience and attribute salience at a given time (McCombs, 2005). While the agenda setting theory has been extensively studied in political and mass communication research over the past half-century, it is remained relatively unexplored in business-related news (Carroll, 2010; Carroll and McCombs, 2003). The rise of business news is a “fundamental shift in the media’s aggregate agenda” in the past three decades (Carroll, 2010, p. 3) and modern CSR has experienced fast growth since the 1970s (Agudelo et al., 2019). Yet, less is known about how newspapers follow the societal trends to portray the social realities of CSR to the public. Under media proliferation and audience segmentation, newspapers were still as powerful as other news media in agenda setting (Luo et al., 2019) and even more effective than social media in setting the public agenda in CSR issues (Vogler and Eisenegger, 2020). The globalization of CSR has contributed to the multifacetedness of its definition (Chapple and Moon, 2005; Matten et al., 2004). However, whether and how the different facets of CSR are captured by the news is still relatively unclear. Although emerging studies have investigated how CSR is covered in newspapers (Grafström and Windell, 2011; Guthey and Morsing, 2014), they were primarily focused on the Western business context, resulting in an incomplete picture of CSR news agenda reflecting global dynamics.

Guided by agenda setting theory, to address these research gaps, the present study highlights the role of newspapers in CSR agenda setting and aims to identify the different patterns of CSR news coverage internationally. This study focuses on four countries and regions, the United Kingdom (UK), the United States (US), mainland China and Hong Kong (HK). These countries and regions represent different CSR development stages and unique economic, social and political contexts. Many scholars have compared CSR between Eastern and Western societies (Chapple and Moon, 2005; Baughn et al., 2007). The UK and US are both relatively mature in CSR development but have shown different priorities in consumers’ perceptions of CSR (Maignan and Ralston, 2002). In contrast, mainland China, with its unique economic and political system, is still at an early stage of CSR development (Tang and Li, 2009). However, mainland China has not been given sufficient attention in the international CSR comparative research (Chapple and Moon, 2005; Tang and Li, 2009). As a special administrative region in the People’s Republic of China, HK is one of the more developed economies in East Asia with a mature social and political system. It also enjoys the same Chinese cultural traditions as mainland China, which makes HK an interesting and unique Asian market for CSR.

Specifically, this study scrutinized what and how CSR are covered in business and mainstream English newspapers of each country/region. Theoretically, this study provides an alternate news perspective on CSR through the lens of agenda setting, which moves away from a corporate-centered, instrumental view of CSR (Tam, 2015; Vogler and Eisenegger, 2020). Based on agenda-setting theory and the institutional perspective, this study identifies salient issues and media tones in CSR-related news across different countries/regions. The comparative view of CSR news coverage reiterates the multifaceted nature of CSR reflecting the unique contextual influence on CSR media agendas, which contributes to a holistic understanding of CSR in the global market. Methodologically, this exploratory study adopted Latent Dirichlet Allocation (LDA), a computer-assisted content analysis approach, sentiment analysis, analysis of variance (ANOVA) and Chi-square to process and analyze a large amount of text data in a more systematic manner, which complements current research focusing on a small sample via manual coding (Guthey and Morsing, 2014; Tam, 2015). Practically, facing the challenge of communicating diverse CSR dimensions to the public, multinational corporations should consider institutional factors when implementing communication strategies. Journalists should be aware of the complexity of CSR in reporting as CSR dimensions continue to grow. In addition, the findings of this study can help multinational corporations and journalists to understand CSR with context sensitivity.

Literature review

Corporate social responsibility as a multifaceted concept

CSR research has experienced a “rich and varied” history in searching for its definition (Carroll and Einwiller, 2014). The early stage of CSR discussion can be traced back to the 1950s. During that time period, Bowen (1953) asked in his book Social Responsibilities of the Businessman about what responsibilities to society that businessmen should be reasonably expected for (Carroll, 2008). CSR was phrased as social responsibility, which refers to:

[…] the obligations of businessmen to pursue those policies, to make those decisions, or to follow those lines of action which are desirable in terms of the objectives and values of our society. (Bowen, 1953, cited from Carroll (2008), p. 5).

The discussion on modern CSR was evolved in the 1970s when the public had a low level of confidence in business, asked for advanced social and environmental regulations from the government to combat the economic recession, and expected the legitimization of corporations’ involvement in social issues (Agudelo et al., 2019; Carroll, 1999; Carroll, 2008). In response to the growing diversified public expectations for socially responsible businesses, In 1979, Carroll proposed a CSR model illustrating the key four dimensions of businesses responsibility, which meet the “economic, legal, ethical and discretionary expectations that society has of organizations at a given point in time” (Carroll, 1979, p. 500). Carroll’s model was developed from an organization-centered perspective, viewing CSR as a managerial tool.

In the 1980s, more “alternate or complementary concepts and themes” of CSR (Carroll, 2008, p. 11) occurred, reflecting a wide range of public concerns regarding environmental pollution, employment discrimination, consumer abuses, employee health and wellness, deterioration of urban life and unethical behaviors of multinational corporations (Carroll, 2008).

In the 1990s, CSR became more institutionalized with an increasing number of international bodies (e.g. the European Commission). In addition, globalization entails multinational companies to incorporate CSR to increase its competitiveness, global visibility and reputation (Carroll, 2008). In 1991, Carroll proposed the CSR pyramid model, which is one of the most widely cited CSR constructs for decades. The model stated that corporations should meet four types of societal expectations toward CSR initiatives, which are economic, legal, ethical and philanthropic responsibilities (Carroll, 1991, 1999; Lee and Carroll, 2011).

In the 2000s, CSR has been widely recognized and advocated by public figures (e.g. President Clinton) and global institutions (e.g. United Nations Global Compact). The 2000s also witnessed increasing scholarship toward the conceptualization of CSR. Schwartz and Carroll (2003) criticized the dichotomous distinction of CSR dimensions in the classic pyramid model and further proposed overlaps among dimensions. Moon (2002) further proposed three new dimensions of CSR, including community involvement, social behaviors in production and services and responsibility for employees. Together, these studies suggested the complexity of defining CSR and the multifaceted CSR dimensions (Dahlsrud, 2008). In the 2010s, creating shared values became dominant in CSR (Chandler, 2016; Kramer and Porter, 2011). Corporations are expected to incorporate:

[…] a holistic CSR perspective within a firm’s strategic planning and core operations so that the firm is managed in the interests of a broad set of stakeholders to optimize value [emphasis added] over the medium to long term (Chandler, 2016, p. 248).

The evolution of CSR suggested that CSR is rooted in societal and institutional contexts and has become a global concept that needs to take multiple stakeholders into consideration.

Recent research exploring the connection between CSR communication and news media has examined the themes of CSR in news media (Grafström and Windell, 2011; Frig et al., 2018), CSR fit in the media coverage (Lunenberg et al., 2016) and the longitudinal analysis of media coverage of CSR (Barkemeyer et al., 2009). However, most studies focused on the volume of media coverage (Barkemeyer et al., 2009; Holt and Barkemeyer, 2012) with limited attention to media tones (Tang, 2012). In addition, previous research on CSR news coverage primarily focused on Western contexts (Hamilton, 2003; Lee and Carroll, 2011; Lee and Riffe, 2017) despite that CSR has become a global issue and revealed different levels of institutionalization and multifaceted meanings in different societies (Chapple and Moon, 2005; Preuss et al., 2016).

Agenda setting theory

The news media play a critical role in shaping the public opinion about an issue through what and how to present the social reality (McCombs and Shaw, 1972). Agenda setting theory addresses issue prominence in the news and explains how selected issues influence public perceptions (McCombs and Reynolds, 2009). The theory can be parsed into two levels. The first-level agenda setting highlights the issue salience, concerning what the media talks about, which provides the public with salient topics to think about (McCombs and Shaw, 1972; McCombs, 2005). Therefore, by prioritizing the salience of issues while deemphasizing others, mass media can affect audiences’ evaluations and understandings of the issues (Scheufele and Tewksbury, 2007). The second-level agenda setting underlines the attributes of those selected topics, which instructs the public to think about salient topics from certain perspectives (McCombs, 2005). Recently, scholars have expanded the theory to the third-level focusing on the transfer of issues and salience from the media network agenda to the public network agenda (Guo and McCombs, 2011). In addition, Wu and Coleman (2009) proposed the “hierarchy of effects theory,” suggesting that the second-level agenda (attribute) has more effects on influencing the public agenda than the first-level agenda (issue). However, Luo et al. (2019) used a meta-analysis of agenda-setting and suggested that both the first-level and second-level agenda setting were equally powerful in influencing the public perception of the issues and their attributes. An increasing number of empirical studies have incorporated agenda-setting theory across a variety of media, including newspapers (Tam, 2015), online media (Roberts et al., 2002) and social media (Vogler and Eisenegger, 2020). Compared to other types of media, newspapers have stronger agenda-setting effects on shaping public perceptions (Luo et al., 2019).

In the context of CSR communication, the first-level agenda-setting highlights what CSR topics stand out in the media coverage. Studies have revealed diverse salient topics in the past CSR news coverage. As a pioneer study, Hamilton (2003) investigated The New York Times, and revealed that few articles mentioned CSR from 1900 to 1960, but there was an obvious increase in the media coverage from 1970 focusing on consumer rights, environmental pollution and shareholder responsibilities. The surge of CSR-related news in the 1970s corresponds to societal concerns and policies about CSR, including the increasing public awareness of CSR and more strict governmental regulations (Carroll, 2015). Grafström and Windell (2011) examined CSR portrayals in Financial Times and The Guardian from 2000 to 2009 indicating six dominant CSR themes:

  • Corporate philanthropy.

  • Rules and regulations against CSR.

  • CSR branding to recruit employees.

  • CSR integration as part of the management.

  • A new business trend.

  • Criticism for CSR as a PR strategy.

Tang (2012) examined the themes of CSR in Chinese newspapers identifying public philanthropy, job opportunities and product quality were the most representative CSR themes for the stakeholders of community, employee and customers, respectively. Aligning with previous research, this study would like to focus on the CSR news coverage from the past decade (2000 to 2016) and explore the following research question:


What CSR-related topics are evident in the news media globally?

The second level of agenda setting concerns how CSR is portrayed in mass media. The second-level agenda setting assumes that “the attributes linked to the object in the news media are mentally linked to the object by the public” (Wanta et al., 2004, p. 367). Therefore, mainstream newspapers’ selective reporting of CSR issues can extensively influence the publics’ interpretations of CSR in different contexts. Previous research suggests that media tone is one of the important attributes (Tang, 2012; Zhang and Swanson, 2006). Zhang and Swanson (2006) surveyed 84 articles in 2005 across 51 national and international newspapers and found that 47% of CSR-related news was in a positive tone. Similarly, Buhr and Grafström (2007) also suggested that CSR was mainly presented in a positive way in the Financial Times. Tang (2012) found that most news articles on CSR (67%) adopted a positive tone in Chinese newspapers. Frig et al. (2018) examined the media tone in business news regarding CSR issues, and the conclusion aligned with previous research showing an overwhelmingly positive tone (74 % articles). Although previous studies provide relatively consistent findings regarding the positive tone in CSR news coverage, there is a large variance in their samples. Following this line of research, we examine the media tone of CSR news coverage in a larger and diverse global news sample by proposing the following research question:


How are CSR-related issues positively or negatively presented in the news media?

Business newspaper vs mainstream newspaper

In terms of different news media sources, some studies distinguished the CSR news frames between the business press and popular press. These studies suggested that the business newspapers (e.g. Financial Times, Corporate Responsibility Magazine and Business Ethics) are better aligned with companies’ interests (Buhr and Grafström, 2007; Frig et al., 2018; Hamilton, 2003; Lee and Riffe, 2017). In contrast, popular newspapers (e.g. New York Times) cover broader CSR issues (e.g. CSR activism, moral conflicts and CSR scandals) from a more independent perspective and with less corporation interference (Hamilton, 2003). Davis (2000) suggested that business media felt obligated to adopt corporate sources due to advertising support. Lee and Riffe (2017) examined the agenda-building of CSR in mass media, and concluded that compared to the corporate sources, newspapers (e.g. The New York Times) obtained information sources from the experts, which may be more skeptical and critical about corporate behaviors. While information provided by corporate sources were more likely to bolster CSR performance. Given the distinction between the general and business news outlets, as well as the close connection between business newspapers and corporate sources, this study develops the following hypothesis:


CSR will be more positively reported in the business newspapers as compared to mainstream newspapers.

A comparative global perspective of corporate social responsibility

CSR is socially constructed (Dahlsrud, 2008). The institutional context (e.g. policy regulations) within which companies are embedded has a great impact on how socially responsible initiatives are defined and implemented (Preuss et al., 2016). The media coverage of CSR in different contexts indicates the varying level of CSR promotion and how CSR topics shifted contextually (Barkemeyer et al., 2009). Thus, it is important to look at the CSR news agendas within the given cultural and social contexts (Smith et al., 2016).

As CSR has become a global issue (Chapple and Moon, 2005), recent CSR research has increasingly emphasized the comparison of CSR across nations/regions (Rim and Dong, 2018; Rim et al., 2019). To date, numerous studies have provided evidence on the CSR reporting in the US, Europe, Asia and other regions, showing different corporate CSR practices, as well as public perceptions of CSR (Chapple and Moon, 2005; Matten et al., 2004; Ramasamy and Ting, 2004; Welford, 2004). These findings are consistent with previous research arguing that CSR is multifaceted in nature and its understanding should take a variety of institutional factors into account (Jackson and Apostolakou, 2010; Maignan and Ralston, 2002; Singh and Del Bosque, 2008). However, few have paid attention to the news media as an important outlet where CSR is voiced and heard. In addition, limited research has examined the difference in CSR news coverage from a cross-national perspective.

The differences in CSR definition across countries/regions can be explained from an institutional perspective. The UK, US, mainland China and HK represent four areas where CSR has shown different levels of CSR institutionalization. The UK is a leader in the CSR development in Europe and evolved from a “shareholder-value” perspective (Jackson and Apostolakou, 2010) ensuring the profitable interests of essential stakeholders in the long run (O’Sullivan and Lazonick, 2000) to a voluntary-based approach benefiting multiple stakeholders while opposing to formal and institutionalized regulations (e.g. the government) (Jackson and Apostolakou, 2010).

The US has mature legislation regulating CSR practices (e.g. The Consumer Product Safety Act) (Hess, 2001) and their legal responsibility is rated as the most important CSR by consumers (Maignan, 2001). Vogel (1992) indicated that compared to Western European countries, the US showed “the unusual visibility of issues of business ethics” given its “distinctive institutional, legal, social and cultural context” (p. 30). Organizational factors also affect CSR practices. US firms tend to focus on the welfare of communities while neglecting the socially responsible behaviors in their production process (Maignan and Ralston, 2002).

Mainland China is a recent beneficiary of CSR practices under globalization (Tang, 2012). CSR was introduced to China at the beginning of the 21st century, and the government started to pay attention to and promote CSR practices among Chinese businesses (Ramasamy and Yeung, 2009). Given the unique political system in mainland China, the government plays an important role in introducing and implementing CSR. Both state-run and private companies in China started adopting CSR in 2004 as suggested by the government (Ramasamy and Yeung, 2009). In addition, rapid economic development has helped China become the “workshop of the world” (Chan, 2003, p. 41), but it also exposed Chinese businesses to considerable criticism from Western businesses. With increasing collaboration worldwide, CSR awareness and support of Chinese companies have significantly improved in the past decade (Moon and Shen, 2010).

HK is a special administrative region of China with a century-long market economy. CSR is not a new concept in HK and the commitment to CSR is comparable to Western countries (Baughn et al., 2007). The government’s awareness of CSR is also high (Lam and Shi, 2008). The HK Trade Development Center (HKTDC) has routinely published reports regarding CSR development. For instance, a 2003 report indicated that HK small and medium-sized enterprises in the trading and manufacturing sector are more likely to adhere to environmental regulations (HKTDC, 2003). HKTDC (2005) also indicated that CSR dimensions are growing (e.g. community engagement, philanthropy, improved code of conduct). To better understand CSR communication in a global context, this study highlights the role of the news media in presenting and disseminating CSR issues and proposes the following research questions:


How does the media coverage of CSR topics differ across the UK, US, mainland China and HK?


How does the media tone of CSR differ across the UK, US, mainland China and HK?


To address these research questions, this study used topic modeling to explore CSR topics and sentiment analysis to examine the tone of CSR-related news articles in both business and mainstream news media across the UK, US, mainland China and HK. Specifically, this research investigates latent topics in media coverage of CSR-related issues and compares media attention from mainstream news outlets in the countries/regions. In addition, to measure the sentiment, CSR-related news articles were further analyzed by the lexicon-based automated sentiment analysis, which used the existing words and terms that were labeled as positive or negative (Khoo and Johnkhan, 2018). We used a combination of computer-assisted content analysis (topic modeling and sentiment analysis), ANOVA and chi-square to answer the research questions posed in this study. The combination of these methods allowed us to handle a large set of texts in a systematic and consistent manner (Roberts et al., 2016) and unpack the statistical differences of CSR news coverage across countries and regions.

Newspaper selection

In particular, there are several criteria to select newspapers for this study. First, all news articles were retrieved from LexisNexis academic database. LexisNexis database has been widely recognized and adopted for sampling in communication research (Deacon, 2007; Tamul and Martínez-Carrillo, 2018). Previous research has suggested that LexisNexis can demonstrate good sample representativeness of daily news and news on specific topics (Tamul and Martínez-Carrillo, 2018). This study focuses on CSR news coverage, a highly recognized topic in both business and mainstream media discourse. Using a keyword search approach, this study relies on the LexisNexis database to generate the media discourse of CSR. Our sample was about the mainstream and business media coverage of CSR-related issues. It is important to note that LexisNexis did not archive all electronic versions of newspapers (Weaver and Bimber, 2008). As a result, the findings of this research should be interpreted with caution as they are generated from the selected samples available on LexisNexis.

Second, this study focused on news media coverage of CSR-related issues from January 1, 2000 to December 31, 2016. The timeframe was chosen because previous research has mostly examined media attention to CSR-related issues from the 1980s to early 2000s, but these data may not sufficiently capture CSR dynamics in today’s business world. As CSR has rapidly developed in the past decade, up-to-date data must be incorporated into the analysis. Third, only news in English was included. Admittedly, CSR-related news is also covered in local languages (e.g. Chinese). However, only one news article in Chinese was identified from LexisNexis in our defined timeframe. Excluding other languages also reduced the ambiguity of vocabulary meanings across our samples. In addition, throwing different languages together in topic modeling in the data analysis was problematic to generate consistent hidden themes. Fourth, our selected news outlets aligned with those in previous media coverage of CSR-related research (Buhr and Grafström, 2007; Furey, et al., 2019; Grafström and Windell, 2011). To balance the number of news articles in each country/region for the final analysis, we cannot include all news outlets in the US and UK; Otherwise, the amount of news articles in the Western context will be significantly larger than the combination of mainland China and HK, resulting in sample biases. Based on the above-mentioned considerations and pragmatic reasons, the following newspapers were included in our sample:

The United Kingdom.

The Guardian and Financial Times maintain the same prestigious credibility and nationwide distribution in the UK. The authors followed Hamilton’s (2003) approach to include Financial Times as a popular press. They are both more likely to include CSR issues than other news outlets (e.g. The Economist) (Grafström and Windell, 2011).

The United States.

The New York Times and the Washington Post are among the most influential and nationally distributed newspapers in the US (Hamilton, 2003). They both include business columns, news, editorials and features about CSR issues and have been used as news sources in previous CSR research (Lee and Carroll, 2011).

Mainland China.

China Daily, Xinhua General News Service, China Business News and Global Times (China) are among China’s few English-language newspapers available on LexisNexis. China Daily is the most widely circulated English language newspaper in mainland China. Compared to most Chinese-language newspapers, which are entirely run by the state and central government, China Daily is more liberal, covering broad political, business and social topics (Yu, 2009). China Business News and Global Times (China) cover business-related stories in mainland China. Xinhua General News Service belongs to Xinhua News Agency and is the main official news outlet for the central government. As most CSR activities are government-driven in China, it is worthwhile to include this official news source, particularly in the authoritarian regime (Liu et al., 2011; Tang and Li, 2009).

Hong Kong.

South China Morning Post is a popular English-language newspaper in HK and is one of the most credible sources offering insights into HK’s society (Chinese University of HK Centre for Communication and Public Opinion Survey, 2016).

In line with previous news categorizations, this study regarded the Financial Times, South China Morning Post and China Business News as business news and others as mainstream news (e.g. The New York Times). The second step was to select the keywords of “CSR,” “social responsibility” and “social sustainability” were searched in the database to retrieve articles. Relevant news press releases, editorials, letters and columns were collected from each news source. Duplicated and irrelevant articles were removed. This screening stage identified 2,114 news articles from the UK, 579 from the US, 727 from mainland China and 1,067 from HK, totaling 4,487 news articles ready for LDA.


The analytical sample included 4,487 news articles and a total of 3,065,594 words. The average length of each news article is approximately 683 words (Min =32, Max =5,536, SD =477.66). Downloaded articles from the LexisNexis database were saved as Hyper Text Markup Language files. The unit of analysis was each news article. Specifically, to answer RQ1, topic modeling was used to discover latent CSR-related topics rather than traditional content analysis via human coding due to the size of our data. In addition, the authors revisited representative articles to validate automatic topics developed from LDA. To answer RQ2, news articles were analyzed by the sentiment lexicon, National Research Council Canada (NRC) word-sentiment association lexicon in R. Finally, to answer H1, RQ3 and RQ4, which aimed to understand whether the difference was statistically significant, ANOVA and chi-square were used to compare the salience of CSR-related issues coverage and media tone in different regions across the UK, US, mainland China and HK. The analytical procedures are explained in detail in the following section.

Topic modeling.

Unsupervised topic modeling involves algorithms to develop hidden topics from the large dataset (Chang et al., 2009; Guo et al., 2016; Lewis et al., 2013). The fundamental principle is to examine each word in each document and discover patterns (Blei, 2012). This study used the most widely-adopted method in unsupervised topic modeling, LDA, which is one of the most competitive techniques to provide reliable and solid analysis of big data (Jacobi et al., 2016). Given the large volume of text in our sample, LDA is a suitable method to apply.

The stm r package was used to preprocess CSR-related news articles (N =4,487), 25,589 terms (words with repetitions) and 1,029,349 tokens (words without repetitions) by stemming words and removing stop words. Given the context of this study, the authors also added some customized stop words such as “year,” “percent,” “one,” “will,” “also” and “can.” After preprocessing, there are 4,487 documents (news articles) related to developing CSR-related topics. The authors used the “set.seed” stm function to avoid changing topics over each estimation iteration. Roberts et al. (2016) suggested semantic coherence and exclusivity as two indicators in determining the number of topics (k). Semantic coherence refers to the similarity of words within the same topic, and topic exclusivity means that words in one topic are relatively rare in other topics. In general, a good model should maximize both indicators of semantic coherence and topic exclusivity. The number of topics should be contingent on the research context rather than adopting an arbitrary number (Guo et al., 2016). In addition, the “SelectModel” stm function allowed the authors to choose a better model within the 10 topics. The averaged proportion of each topic in all documents was also calculated. Based on the developed frequent words in each topic, the authors also manually assigned topic labels (Jacobi et al., 2016), as displayed in Table 1.

A follow-up qualitative analysis was conducted to validate that the keywords were consistent with the meanings of the original articles (Jacobi et al., 2016). As a result, the authors revisited 15 news articles of each topic, totaling 150 articles. Those articles were selected by the stm r code to validate automatic topics developed from LDA. During this process, the authors found that Topic 7 included scattered information about CSR without a clear theme. These articles did not provide sufficient information directly linked to CSR values, practices, performances and/or impacts. Given that this topic lacked a clear unified theme and the averaged topic proportion was the smallest (0.068), it was excluded from further analysis.


As this study adopted LDA to handle the large corpus of CSR news articles, the authors conceptualized media attention as the weight of each developed CSR topic rather than counting the number of news articles in which the term CSR appears (Lee and Carroll, 2011). Thus, ANOVA was used to compare the means of the topic proportions.

Sentiment analysis.

Sentiment analysis is one type of text analysis, aiming to quantify the tone of the text in positive or negative valence (Boumans and Trilling, 2016). The lexicon-based sentiment analysis uses pre-coded word lists to count the frequency of negative and positive words in the texts (Boumans and Trilling, 2016). Given the length of news articles, this study applied to the CSR-related news, which was one of the most used lexicons (Xu and Guo, 2018). NRC was developed by researchers at the NRC, which categorized words into positive and negative polarity, as well as other emotional dimensions, including anger, anticipation, disgust, fear, joy, sadness, surprise and trust (Mohammad and Turney, 2010). One word could be categorized into more than one emotional dimension. For instance, accident was associated with both fear and negativity. Categorized words were created by about 1,000 human annotators via Amazon Mechanical Turk, and the NRC team has expanded the lexicon to almost 40,000 terms (Mohammad and Turney, 2010). Compared to other popular lexicons, NRC was evaluated as the top one by semantic evaluation series (Rosenthal et al., 2014; Zhu et al., 2014), which was highly-identical with manual coding (Mohammad and Turney, 2010). As the lexicon-based sentiment analysis was frequently criticized for its lack of context to precisely detect the meaning (Boumans and Trilling, 2016; Van der Meer, 2016), the emotional dimensions of anger, anticipation, disgust, fear, joy, sadness, surprise and trust in NRC will be excluded from further analysis in this study avoiding inaccurate judgment. Specifically, the NRC lexicon in the tidytext r package was used to count the number of positive and negative words in CSR-related news articles (N =4,487).


Salient corporate social responsibility topics

RQ1 sought to provide a descriptive analysis of how newspapers in the four countries and regions cover CSR-related issues.

Topic 1: Government as a corporate social responsibility facilitator.

The first topic addresses the government’s policies and regulations regarding corporations’ environmental responsibility and their impacts on corporate behavior and society. This type of news coverage explicitly promotes CSR from a public administrative standpoint, presenting the government as an active facilitator that pushes CSR in adopting cleaner energy, carefully selecting sites for construction and using advanced technology to reduce environmental pollution. For example, an officer of the Development Bureau of HK commented on a debut of business proposals that did not meet the green policy, saying that “developers should shoulder more CSR (p. 1)” (South China Morning Post, December 15, 2008).

Topic 2: Stakeholders’ socially responsible investment.

The second topic focuses on stakeholders’ pressure on companies to engage in CSR, as reflected in their socially responsible investment (SRI). By definition, SRI refers to investments made based on a business’s financial and nonfinancial (e.g. ethical and environmental) criteria (Kurtz, 2008). Stakeholders are selective investors, and they may refer to various CSR performance indexes to assist in their investment decision-making. For instance, one popular index (i.e. FTSE4Good) suggests that SRI should “exclude tobacco, arms and nuclear power companies from the indices” and the index “excludes companies only when they do not disclose information or have unacceptable policies on the environment, human rights and social issues (p. 18)” (Financial Times, July 21, 2001).

Topic 3: Corporate social responsibility in manufacturing, products and services.

The third topic discusses CSR from consumers’ perspectives. Products and services are closely related to consumers and should reflect the bottom line of CSR in both symbolic and practical ways. CSR is not optional because consumers expect corporations to act with high ethical standards in every aspect of the business. The news articles emphasized CSR in the processes of raw material production, supply chain, design and marketing, reporting how companies adopt recyclable materials to produce products, cooperate with suppliers that meet the environmental safeguards, build properties that fit nature preservation and provide health and organic food. For example, one news article quoted a professor regarding the fashion industry’s ethical issues, “especially for image-based products such as celebrity fashion lines, it turns out that the bottom line is affected because consumers really seem to care about these things (p. 10)” (New York Times, November 18, 2003).

Topic 4: Corporate social responsibility in business education.

The fourth topic emphasizes the importance of preparing business professionals to understand CSR as a way to impact their ethical and accountable behaviors in their careers. News articles frequently mentioned the importance of incorporating CSR in MBA education and employee on-site training to improve CSR awareness. Business education institutions (e.g. HK Baptist University and George Mason University) and service companies (e.g. Hong Yip, a service company) were identified and awarded for their efforts in CSR education and training. One article from South China Morning Post (May 5, 2012) reported that HKBU followed the trend to incorporate CSR in their business education courses:

In recent years, corporate governance and corporate social responsibility (CSR) are two new and timely courses that we have introduced. To let our students learn more about CSR, we linked up with social enterprises and asked our students to give them advice on how to run their businesses in a sustainable manner – a win-win situation for the social enterprise and the students (p. 8)”

Topic 5: Corporate social responsibility globalization.

The fifth topic includes CSR in the international business context, indicating that CSR is a critical concern in international business. News articles related to this theme often cited global conferences (e.g. Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation) and international corporate partnerships. Although CSR is defined in various ways, this topic reflects that CSR is shareable and learnable across countries and regions. One article from Xinhua General News Services (October 30, 2014) reported CSR benefits in an intensive cooperation between China and The Netherlands:

Trade Representative and Vice-Minister of Commerce Zhong Shan said: “We both have the desire to further intensify the relationship not only in trade, but also other areas,” Ploumen said. “Our focus is on issues such as corporate social responsibility and sustainable production. It is not only important that we trade, but also how it benefits our people (World news section).

Topic 6: Debate over the value of corporate social responsibility.

This topic reveals the writers’ critical thinking about CSR, including what CSR means to business people and when CSR practices are appropriate, and the dilemma between philanthropy and profitability. Some articles emphasized that CSR should be embedded in a business’s mission and value proposition. Other articles portrayed the value of CSR as a necessary tool to improve profitability. Media coverage of this theme indicated that the value of CSR is still open to debate. For example, Financial Times (January 12, 2011) reported that “true, business does indeed need to be more moral than it often is. However, much debate on business and morality is too sentimentalist to be useful (p. 9).” This article reveals the paradox of moral philosophy in business.

Topic 8: Cross-sector corporate social responsibility alliances.

Articles with this topic discussed collaboration and alliances of multiple stakeholders in CSR. They identified valuable partnerships among the government, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), business, public sector, private sector, consumers and international agencies in fulfilling social and environmental responsibility. For instance, one article in Financial Times (June 2, 2015) stated the need for cross-sector collaboration in CSR:

We now recognize that global sustainability challenges such as water stress, climate change and waste cannot be addressed by governments, businesses or NGOs acting alone. Companies are collaborating, not only with business partners, suppliers and customers, but also competitors, NGOs, public sector bodies, international agencies and academic institutions, to address social and environmental problems (p. 7).

Topic 9: Legal enforcement of corporate social responsibility.

This topic focused on the legislation and fines regarding companies’ irresponsible behaviors, such as tax evasion, unfair agreements with employees, workplace discrimination and violations of the minimum wage. The news articles in this topic emphasized that abiding by regulations is a fundamental aspect to fulfill good citizenship. The news coverage also included specific court cases on companies failing to perform CSR. For instance, one article in the New York Times (July 29, 2014) warned about tax evasion:

Legislators in Washington ratcheted up the pressure on Tuesday on companies seeking tax relief by moving overseas, introducing a bill that would withhold government contracts from companies that undertake so-called inversion deals (Business section).

Topic 10: Community involvement.

This topic linked CSR to voluntary community involvement, including charitable giving, volunteerism and fundraising. News articles in this theme reported corporations’ proactive attitudes and behaviors toward community engagement. The coverage emphasized traditional aspects of CSR and corporate philanthropy that connect business and society. It also emphasized employee participation in community services. Stories particularly featured CSR activities for individual corporations. For instance, one article in South China Morning Post (May 22, 2011) reported that:

[…] the staff club of ANZ Hong Kong has come a long way since organizing its initial community services several years ago, consisting mainly of ad hoc activities such as visiting elderly homes during festivals (p. 6).

Sentiment analysis

RQ2 asks the media tones in CSR news articles. Results revealed that for the UK, there were more positive words (n =95,963, 6.2%) than negative words (n =39,910, 2.6%) in 2,114 news articles with 1,536,468 words. For the US, more positive words (n =28,935, 6.2%) were detected than negative words (n =12,373, 2.7%) in 579 news articles with 464,847 words. For mainland China, a similar pattern was discovered, as there were more positive words (n =26,757, 8.0%) than negative words (n =6,481, 1.9%) in 727 news articles with 335,775 words. For HK, there were more positive words (n =50,596, 7.0%) than negative words (n =17,509, 2.4%) in 1,067 news articles with 727, 240 words. Therefore, overall, there were more positive words (n =202,251, 6.6%) than negative words (n =76,273, 2.5%) in 4,487 news articles with 3,064,330 words across the UK, US, mainland China and HK. The difference between the positive tone and negative tone was statistically significant via the chi-square independence test (χ2(1) = 56,981, p <0.001). The frequency of words in positive and negative tones across different countries/regions was displayed in Table 2.

Comparing media tone between business newspapers and mainstream newspapers

H1 focuses on the different media tones adopted by business and mainstream news. A chi-square test revealed that CSR-related news in business news media (n =127,748, 4.2%) were presented in a more positive way than CSR-related news in mainstream news media (n =74,503, 2.4%). The difference was statistically significant (χ2(1) = 14,017, p <0.001). Therefore, H1 was supported (Table 4).

Comparing corporate social responsibility topics across the United Kingdom, United States, mainland China and Hong Kong

RQ3 explores whether media coverage of CSR differs across these countries and regions. Nine ANOVA tests were conducted. Data for the ANOVA analysis were averaged topic proportions of the nine topics. The detailed statistics are presented in Table 3. On average, the CSR news coverage in the US showed a greater preference for presenting CSR in corporations, manufacturing, products and services and emphasized the legal penalties for violating CSR regulations. The CSR news coverage in the UK emphasized SRI, the social discussion of CSR and cross-sector CSR collaborations. The CSR news coverage in HK highlighted the government’s role in facilitating and regulating CSR practices, addressed CSR in community engagement and prioritized CSR education in business programs and employee training. The CSR news coverage in mainland China mostly featured CSR as a global concern.

Comparing corporate social responsibility sentiment across the United Kingdom, United States, mainland China and Hong Kong

Furthermore, RQ4 asks whether there would be a difference in media tones adopted by newspapers in reporting CSR-related issues across the UK, USA, mainland China and HK. Detailed results showed that in the UK, 6.2% (n =95,536) words in CSR-related news articles were positive and 3.0% (n =39,879) were negative; in the USA, 6.2% (n =28,935) words were positive and 2.7% (n =12,373) were negative; in mainland China, 8.0% (n =26,757) were positive and 1.9% (n =6,481) were negative; and in HK, 7.0% (n =50,596) were positive and 2.4% (n =17,509) were negative. A chi-square test revealed a statistically significant difference existed in media tones across the UK, US, mainland China and HK (χ2(3) = 1,561.6, p <0.001) (Table 4).


The goal of this study is to understand the multifaceted characteristics of CSR in a global context and from the lens of the newspaper. Guided by the agenda-setting theory, this study explored the salient topics and media tones of CSR news coverage across the UK, US, mainland China and HK. In addition, this study compared the positive media tone of CSR-related news in business and mainstream newspapers.

Following the first-level agenda setting, the findings first revealed nine unique topics emerging from worldwide news articles covering CSR-related issues, which provide a comprehensive picture of how CSR is viewed by global news media. The diversity of CSR topics in the media coverage echoes the ongoing debate on the definition of CSR, which brings challenges for news media to convey consistent and coherent messages. Some of our CSR topics are aligned with what have been found in the previous literature, such as legal enforcement (Lee and Carroll, 2011) and community involvement (Tang, 2012). Noticeably, our findings also suggest that newspapers set their own CSR agenda involving diverse stakeholders’ interests, which is not necessarily the same as corporate sources. The most surprising finding is the newspaper’s emphasis on business education as an integral part of CSR, which has been rarely discussed in the current CSR literature.

Previous research suggests that CSR disclosure on the US corporate websites primarily focuses on community welfare (e.g. quality of life, arts and culture) with limited attention to CSR initiatives in their business operations (e.g. production, employees and customers) (Maignan and Ralston, 2002). However, we found that newspapers tend to cover a broader spectrum of CSR themes, adding richness to the corporate-centered CSR information that is open to the wide publics. This finding is somewhat contradictory to Grafström and Windell’s (2011) assertion that media outlets are simply “infomediaries” for corporations when they investigated the Financial Times and The Guardian. Given the discrepancies of CSR messages between the corporations and newspapers, we argue that the publics could be exposed to conflicting information from these two sources, which may cause confusion and even reduce public trust toward both sources.

Institutional factors play an important role in shaping firms’ CSR priorities (Preuss et al., 2016). Our study further suggests that the news media mirrors cultures, values and various institutional forces in a given society (Cornelissen et al., 2015). Most of our findings from the CSR news coverage indicated the relevance to the institutional environment in which CSR is practiced. In the UK, SRI is a prominent issue in the media coverage of CSR due to overall investor-oriented engagement in CSR issues. Maignan and Ralston (2002) indicated that CSR in the UK is more performance-oriented than in the US, and our findings share this view in CSR-related news articles. Second, the news media in the UK focuses on cross-sector CSR alliances with governments, and international agencies. This finding is consistent with previous research suggesting that the UK has been a pioneer in CSR practices among European countries (Jackson and Apostolakou, 2010) as it engages in a broad range of stakeholders in CSR initiatives. The news media reflects such a trend and advocates for more CSR collaborations. Third, the news media in the UK also highlights the debate over the value of CSR, suggesting a constant development of socially constructed CSR definitions (Aguilera et al., 2006).

In the US, media attention is salient toward two CSR-related issues. First, newspapers in the US feature CSR in manufacturing and products and services suggesting that CSR in the US prioritizes consumers’ interests. This view implies that the news media in the US portrays CSR from a stakeholder-driven perspective that highlights stakeholders’ interests (e.g. consumers). Interestingly, our finding contradicts the corporate self-reported CSR in the US. As Maignan and Ralston (2002) indicated, CSR disclosure on US corporate websites primarily focuses on community welfare (e.g. quality of life, arts and culture) with limited attention to CSR initiatives in their business operations (e.g. production, employees and customers). In addition, the news media in the US highlighted the legal enforcement of CSR. This emphasis on legal enforcement of CSR in the US aligns with the important role of laws in the US publics could be exposed to this conflicting information from the news and the companies, which may cause confusion and even reduce their trust toward both sources.

In mainland China, media attention prioritizes CSR globalization over other topics, which shows concern regarding the market’s global impacts. The media system in mainland China is highly subject to government oversight (Redl and Simons, 2002). Thus, the heavy focus on presenting CSR as a global issue in the news media in mainland China further supports the government’s political role in initiating and promoting CSR practices among companies under globalization.

In HK, the news media pays attention to both the government’s role in CSR and innovative CSR practices. As Rim and Dong (2018) suggested, the public’s trust in government influences their CSR perception. The high trust in the HK Government may lead to more government’s involvement in CSR. In addition, the CSR news coverage in HK highlights community involvement, an important component of philanthropic responsibility. This focus aligns with the corporate perspective (Mahtani and Leo, 2007), but contradicts many previous studies suggesting that the HK public favors economic responsibility over noneconomic responsibility from a consumer perspective (Burton et al., 2000; Ramasamy and Yeung, 2009). The discrepancy between consumers’ CSR expectations and media attention indicates that corporations could reach out to the news media to focus on corporations’ interests (Grafström and Windell, 2011). The most surprising result is news media’s emphasis on business education as an integral part of CSR, which is rarely discussed in CSR literature. As diverse stakeholders’ expectations of CSR (e.g. the government and consumers) strengthen the importance and need for CSR in businesses, educational institutions and corporate training consider stakeholders’ expectations and increases employees’ CSR awareness.

In terms of media tones, the findings are consistent with previous research, showing a dominant positive tone in CSR-related news articles (Buhr and Grafström, 2007; Frig et al., 2018; Tang, 2012; Zhang and Swanson, 2006). Thus, it seemed that CSR was portrayed in a positive way regardless of the geographical variances. Our sample consisted of both business sections (Furey et al., 2019) and other news sections covering CSR issues, such as letters and news stories promoting companies’ CSR achievements and interviews featuring companies’ CSR performances. There is a possibility that some of the CSR promotions were “surreptitious advertisement” (Tang, 2012, p. 282), which contributes to the dominant positive tone in the media coverage of CSR. Consistent with previous findings (Furey et al., 2019), this study also found that business newspapers were more likely to adopt a positive tone when covering CSR issues, as compared to the mainstream newspapers. A large amount of CSR-related news in business media indicates close connections between business journalists and corporate sources (Davis, 2000). Compared to the mainstream media targeting the general audience, business newspapers were more oriented to corporate stakeholders (Davis, 2000). Business news enabled corporations to maneuver how they are presented in CSR activities and events. News coverage would help address firms’ concerns about low public awareness of CSR (Du et al., 2010). However, our finding warranted the potential bias of CSR coverage in the business news agenda, which may mislead the public’s perception of corporations’ CSR performance.

Last but not least, this study found CSR was portrayed most positively in the newspapers in mainland China than in HK and the other two Western countries. It may be because of their different stages of CSR development. CSR was introduced to China at the beginning of the 21st century, and the government started to pay attention to and promote CSR practices among Chinese businesses (Moon and Shen, 2010). Mainland China is a recent beneficiary of CSR practices under globalization (Tang, 2012). CSR has been perceived as a main contribution from the private sector to the political agenda of building a harmonious society (Yin and Zhang, 2012). Thus, the media coverage of CSR would be consistent with the political agenda, highlighting CSR as a necessity of social and economic development.


This study aims to investigate and compare what and how CSR-related news was covered in business and mainstream English newspapers in the US, UK, mainland China and HK between 2000 and 2016. Our findings identified nine salient CSR topics emerging from the data and each country/region’s newspapers have different CSR focuses because of their varying societal and political contexts. In addition, the overall media tone was found positive in CSR-related news. Built on previous literature, our study contributes to the media coverage of CSR, moving our understanding of CSR away from a corporate self-reporting view to the news media’s perspective, which raises interesting questions about the role of newspapers in presenting CSR as a multifaceted, socially constructed concept.

This study fills the research gap in the following perspectives. First, while most previous research examined CSR from corporate sources (e.g. corporate websites) (Chapple and Moon, 2005), this study uses a non-corporate, providing an alternate view of CSR discourses. Second, while most previous research in the media coverage of CSR issues only focused on one country/region (Tam, 2015; Vogler and Eisenegger, 2020), this study included the samples from both developed and developing markets of CSR, showing a comparative view of CSR conceptualization in different societies with the influence from a variety of institutional factors. Third, the majority of previous studies used traditional content analysis with manual coding to handle a small sample size. Our study used computer-assisted approaches to analyze the large dataset. Our findings also contribute to the CSR communication literature. First, our study suggests that the news media report CSR using a heterogeneous approach as they not only provide surface reports on corporations’ CSR activities but also offer in-depth discussions, such as debating the value of CSR. Thus, for the general public, the news media provides thought-provoking ideas about the meaning of CSR at the societal level. In addition, the overall positive tone in presenting CSR issues regardless of geographical variances indicates a supportive media environment of CSR. However, the salient positive media tone in CSR-related news might be contributed by the increasing sources from corporate public relations materials.

Methodologically, this study relied on computer assisted approaches (i.e. LDA and sentiment analysis) to process a large dataset. The large sample size enables researchers to examine CSR-related news in a more comprehensive way. Practically, our descriptive findings can help multinational corporations to better understand salient CSR interests, as reflected in news coverage, in particular regions. For example, companies in the UK can benefit from such media attention by initiating cross-sector collaborations with NGOs, the government, international agencies and other stakeholders concerning CSR practices. Emerging topics in CSR news coverage, such as business education, could help companies identify untapped CSR realms in the market. In addition, this study offers insights for SRI, which can further assist investors to make relevant decisions.

Consistent with previous research (Frig et al., 2018; Tang, 2012; Zhang and Swanson, 2006), our study suggested an overall positive media tone in CSR-related news. This finding warrants a revisit of the media relations from a public relation’s perspective. News media functions as a gatekeeper, playing an important role in disseminating information and influencing what and how the public understands social issues (Wallace, 2018). However, rather than producing information, journalists increasingly relied on content sources from public relations professionals (Jackson and Moloney, 2016). Both professional journalists and scholars expressed the concern that news media content would serve the corporate interests rather than the public interest (Boumans, 2018). Some studies on inter-media agenda showed that news sources about CSR were mainly from corporate sources as main subsidies (Tam, 2015). Even though our study included different types of articles, such as columns, editorials, news and features to combat the possibility of corporate source alone, the overall media tone was still positive. Therefore, the dominant positive tone in CSR-related news suggests that CSR promotion might have been used by corporations as a public relations strategy, which may affect the uncontrolled information dissemination to the public.

Boumans (2018) suggests that the US and UK are more likely to use public relations materials to build news agendas than other European countries. However, the comparatively strongest positive tones in mainland China and HK in our study suggest that the unhealthy news media environment is also evidenced outside of the Western context. Different from CSR communication on social media where information is fully controlled by corporations, journalists need to seriously consider how news media can keep its gatekeeper role, as news media are regarded as primary message mediators shaping the public perceptions of social issues and major avenues for individuals to acquire information (Luo et al., 2019).

Limitations and future research

The findings of our study need to be interpreted with caution due to several limitations. First, this study only included selected English newspapers, including other types of newspapers that could diversify the sample. In addition, all news sources were from a single database (i.e. LexisNexis database). Future studies could both consider incorporating other types of news media (e.g. television news) and use larger and more diverse databases to further examine the nuances in CSR news coverage. Second, this study did not focus on the changes of CSR topics overtime, which could be a meaningful direction to explore to reveal a historic development of CSR. Future research could consider time as a covariate in exploring media attention to CSR issues. The analysis in mainland China and HK were restricted to newspapers published in English, which restricts the scope of CSR news. Future research needs to consider how multilingual CSR-related news sets the agenda for the public. In addition, this study only included four countries and regions and other countries representing different institutional factors should be considered in future research.

With the rise of digital media, it would be interesting to compare cross-border CSR issues across different media platforms and examine the following consequences on companies’ adoption of CSR practices. Also, this study does not test the agenda setting hypotheses. Future research could address how the media agenda of CSR issues transfer to the public agenda. Finally, from the linguistic perspective, a follow-up qualitative analysis is suggested to examine how linguistic factors play a role in CSR-related news in influencing the public agenda. Although this study implies that CSR is presented differently between the news media and corporate sources, this comparison was made based on previous CSR studies. More empirical research is needed to compare the statistical differences of CSR as communicated by the news and corporate source.

Key words, labels and proportions of 10 topics

Topics Word 1 Word 2 Word 3 Word 4 Word 5 Word 6 Word 7 Label Prop.
1 Environment Energi Green Govern Water Build Use Government as a CSR facilitator 0.078
2 Invest Bank Fund Company Investor Manag Finance SRI 0.095
3 Product Brand Consum Food Market Use Say CSR in manufacturing, products and services 0.063
4 Busi School Manag Student Univers Award Educ CSR in business education 0.091
5 China Develop Chines Country Africa Invest Econom CSR globalization 0.111
6 Busi Make Like Think Good Get Need The debate over the value of CSR 0.134
7 World Say Former Polit Campaign London Right Unclear 0.068
8 Company Busi Social Respons Sustain Say Environment Cross-sector CSR alliances 0.169
9 Tax Worker Compani Govern Law State Public Legal enforcement of CSR 0.092
10 Community Say Children Help Charity Employee Staff Community involvement 0.098

In total, 10 topics were generated from 4,487 news articles from The Guardian, Financial Times, New York Times, Washington Post, China Daily, Xinhua General News Service, China Business News, Global Times (China) and South China Morning Post

The frequency of positive and negative words in CSR-related articles in the UK, USA, mainland China and HK

Words in news articles %(n)
Media tone UK USA Mainland China HK
Positive 6.2 (95,936) 6.2 (28,935) 8.0 (26,757) 7.0 (50,596)
Negative 2.6 (39,910) 2.7 (12,373) 1.9 (6,481) 2.4 (17,509)
Total words of news articles %(n) 100.0 (1,536,468) 100.0 (464,847) 100.0 (335,775) 100.0 (3,064,330)

The comparison of CSR topics across the UK, USA, HK and mainland China

Averaged topic proportions
Topics UK USA Mainland China HK ANOVA statistics
Topic 1 0.08 0.05 0.06 0.16 F (3, 4,483) = 122.59***
Topic 2 0.06 0.14 0.04 0.06 F (3, 4,483) = 148.92***
Topic 3 0.10 0.07 0.05 0.04 F (3, 4,483) = 25.358***
Topic 4 0.04 0.06 0.09 0.17 F (3, 4,483) = 154.19***
Topic 5 0.044 0.039 0.445 0.059 F (3, 4,483) = 1,926.6***
Topic 6 0.15 0.17 0.03 0.12 F (3, 4,483) = 308.21***
Topic 8 0.07 0.22 0.13 0.15 F (3, 4,483) = 166.05***
Topic 9 0.26 0.08 0.04 0.06 F (3, 4,483) = 349.97***
Topic 10 0.09 0.07 0.08 0.15 F (3, 4,483) = 64.639***

p <0.001

The frequency of positive words in business and mainstream news

Sources of news No. of positive words %(n)
Business China Business News 6,254
South China Morning Post 50,596
Financial Times 70,898
Total 63.2% (127,748)
Mainstream China Daily 9,316
Global Times (China) 861
Xinhua General News 10,326
The New York Times 16,716
The Washington Post 12,219
The Guardian 25,065
Total 36.8% (74,503)
Total positive words 100.0% (202,251)


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The two authors contributed equally to the manuscript.

Corresponding author

Chuqing Dong can be contacted at: cdong@msu.edu

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