African-American News Coverage Focuses on Individuals, Events

July 28, 2010

This article is included in these additional categories:

African-American | Analytics, Automated & MarTech | Broadcast & Cable | Data-driven | Media & Entertainment | Newspapers | Radio

Mainstream US news coverage of African Americans from February 2009 – February 2010 tended to focus more on specific episodes and individuals than on examining how broader issues and trends affected the lives of blacks generally, according to a year-long study by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism and its Social and Demographic Trends Project.

Gates Arrest Dominates Coverage
From early 2009 through early 2010, the biggest news story related to African Americans was the controversy triggered by the arrest last summer of a prominent black Harvard University professor by a white Cambridge, MA police officer. It accounted for nearly four times more African American-related coverage than did either of the two biggest national “issue” stories covered by the mainstream media during the same period, the economy and health care.


The study finds that 9% of the coverage of the nation’s first black president and his administration during Obama’s first year in office had some race angle to it. Here, too, Pew found this coverage was largely tied to specific incidents or controversies rather than to broader issues and themes.

Cable, Talk Radio Provide Most Coverage
Cable TV and talk radio devoted the most time to African-Americans out of the media sectors covered, with 2.5% and 2.4%, respectively, of their newshole (time studied on their programs) containing significant mention of African-Americans.


However, with the exception of CNN, Pew found the attention came largely through focus on political debate regarding events involving prominent blacks such as President Obama. Pew analysis indicates CNN, stood out for having segments about African-Americans that went beyond political debate.

Online publications and evening network news came next, tied with 1.9% of their respective newsholes. News website coverage was also oriented largely around big events, according to Pew, but mainly through straight news accounts rather than ideological commentary. And network evening news, for its part, aired more produced packages (77.6%) than other broadcast media and often with a more positive light than in other media sectors.

Individuals Stand Out
The storylines that generated the most press attention on African-Americans were driven primarily by black figures who made news. In its coverage of race, Pew finds the press largely responded to breaking news during the year studied, rather than exploring the state of African-Americans or developing African-American angles around events or issues in the news.


Among the top 10 storylines during 2009 and early 2010, five stemmed from individuals who made news and five were tied more to issues in the news. Stories surrounding the five individuals accounted for 48.3% of all African American coverage, more than three times the coverage of the top five issues (15.1%).

News surrounding two figures alone, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates and President Barack Obama, accounted for more than one-third (37%) of the African-American newshole.

Other individuals to spark coverage during the time period studied were Michael Jackson, who died on June 25, 2009; Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian who attempted to attack the Northwest Airlines flight on Dec. 25, 2009; and Sonia Sotomayor, whose confirmation hearings to become a Supreme Court justice triggered some debate over her ruling in a case involving white and African-American firefighters.

About the Data: These findings come from an examination of more than 67,000 national news stories that appeared between Feb. 16, 2009 and Feb. 15, 2010 in different mainstream media outlets, including newspapers, cable and network television, radio, and news websites. Just 643 of those stories, or 1.9% of the total newshole examined by the study, related in a significant way to African-Americans in the US.

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