New study finds first black presidency brings no surplus in media coverage of black people
Anyone who thought the election of America's first black president would bring more media attention to issues affecting black people will be disappointed by a new study showing the exact opposite has happened in the first year of Barack Obama's presidency.
According to a new study released today by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, less than 2 percent of the stories they examined from February 2009 to February 2010 related in a significant way to African Americans in the U.S. (at least 25 percent of the story must be about the group and its ethnicity).
And among the stories that did fit that description -- just 643 out of 67,000 examined by the PEJ -- most of the coverage focused on events involving black newsmakers, rather than comprehensive stories on black issues.
The arrest of African American Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates consumed nearly 20 percent of the total stories -- far more than any other subject. Gates' arrest by a white officer in his own home became a roiling controversy after President Obama described Cambridge police as "acting stupidly" in taking him into custody (an assessment, beer summit aside, I still agree with). The next two subjects were the Obama administration and the death of pop star Michael Jackson.
"In other words, the press largely responded to breaking news during the year studied rather than exploring the state of African Americans or developing African American angles to events or issues in the news."
What was also interesting: black people still got more coverage than two other ethnic minority groups -- Hispanics at 1.3 percent of the total newshole and Asian Americans at .2 percent. While it probably isn't fair to expect coverage equal to each group's proportion in U.S. population -- black people are at 12.9 percent, Hispanics at 14 percent -- it still seems odd that so few stories are devoted to these issues.
It dovetails with something I've written about a lot on this blog; the irony that the election of black president hasn't really prompted news outlets to diversify their staffing -- especially in cable news.
Given that CNN is example Number One of the problem, I give Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz props for tackling the question of why no anchors of color have surfaced to lead top shows in prime time on cable news Sunday on his CNN media analysis show, Reliable Sources. for the discussion, he tapped me, former ABC News anchor Carole Simpson and pundit Amy Holmes, all black people.
At the same time, when Howard turned to talk about the Shirley Sherrod case -- a week-long scandal where media, race tension and political conflict came together in one toxic stew -- the panel who kicked around the issue had no people of color on it at all. So it was ironic to have a discussion about "ghettoizing" anchors of color on a show where the experts of color seemed limited to talking about diversity in media.
That irony aside, I wished we'd had more time to talk over the issue on CNN. Because a few important things were left unsaid.
1) We now know that electing a black president isn't a magic bullet. It's an important sign of progress in one sense. but that doesn't mean our problems with diversity in other areas magically vanish. In fact, the PEJ study indicates too many people in media may have relaxed too quickly, focusing coverage on specific incidents and newsmakers rather than larger stories which add context and understanding.
2) We must be careful about pitting one disenfranchised group against another. I was troubled by Carole Simpson's words about diversity gains coming at the expense of black people. I don't think that's true or necessary. People of color should be fighting together to make media more inclusive and more accurate in covering all of us. Because that is the ultimate goal of diversity work -- to make media more accurate by making it more inclusive for everyone.
3) You never get "done" with diversity work. CNN, in particular, has a large stable of anchors of color, including Tony Harris, T.J. Holmes, Frederika Whitfield, Rick Sanchez, Suzanne Malveaux, Soledad O'Brien -- but they mostly either work specialty jobs, daytime jobs or weekend jobs. Now that CNN has diversified its anchor ranks, it is time to add diversity to its more important timeslots. Competitors MSNBC and Fox News Channel are even worse -- though news that former Nightline co-host Martin Bashir, who is east Indian, is joining MSNBC should help their numbers.Look below to see my appearance on CNN Sunday and the Sherrod discussion.