New Study investigates media coverage of African Americans during Obama presidency

The fallout from the firing of Agriculture Department official Shirley Sherrod and the one-year anniversary of the controversial arrest of African American Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. have put race back in the news of late. These high-profile stories raise a larger question: to what degree does the press cover news about the state of black America generally?

In the last year, African Americans as a group generated relatively little attention in the mainstream press—and what coverage there was focused more on specific events instead of on broader issues about race, according to a Pew Research Center study that investigated media coverage of African Americans during the first year of the Obama presidency.

The report examined more than 67,000 mainstream news stories from February 2009 through February 2010 and found that just 643 of those stories (1.9%) related in a significant way to African Americans in the U.S. While relatively small, this was more coverage than was given to Hispanics (1.3%) and Asian Americans (.2%) in the same time frame.

The biggest story involving African Americans in the time period under study was the Gates incident. That story accounted for nearly four times more African American coverage than did either of the two biggest national “issue” stories—the economy and health care.

The nation’s first black president was the second-biggest story in the coverage explicitly related to African Americans in the last year. In all, nearly 18% of coverage of African Americans came through attention to the Obama Administration.

Among the key findings: Nearly a third of the coverage of Africans Americans was related in some way to President Obama. Obama made himself a central player in the Gates incident when, at a presidential press conference, he described the arrest as “stupid.” Soon thereafter the president hosted a “beer summit” at the White House with his friend Gates and the arresting officer in an effort to smooth things over.

Coverage of Obama’s involvement in the Gates controversy combined with coverage of the Obama Administration more generally accounted for almost 30% of all African American coverage during the year studied. About 9% the coverage of the Obama presidency had a substantial racial element to it.

The press coverage that did emerge in the time frame studied tended to be a reaction to events involving black newsmakers rather than to issues relating to African Americans more generally. The arrest of Gates, the Obama presidency, the death of Michael Jackson and the attempted Northwest Airlines terrorist attack by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab accounted for nearly half (46%) of all coverage that had a substantial mention of African Americans during this time period.

Cable, talk shows mentioned African Americans most. The media sectors studied differed in the degree to which they focused on African Americans in their coverage over the course of the year and in the angles they pursued. Cable TV and talk radio came in at the top, with 2.5% and 2.4%, respectively, of time studied on their programs containing significant mention of African Americans. The bulk of this time was spent assessing political implications of actions by or to black figures. African American press focused more on issues than incidents.

A separate analysis of three African American newspapers reveals a very different approach to the coverage of the Gates incident. While the mainstream media largely assessed political implications for President Obama, the commentary in the black press considered the arrest itself and the broader question of race relations in the U.S.

The study also included a separate analysis of how the Gates controversy was treated in the three highest circulation African American newspapers in the country—The New York Amsterdam News, The Afro-American and the Philadelphia Tribune.

This study was designed and produced by jointly by The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism and its Social and Demographic Trends Project. The Pew Research Center is a nonpartisan and nonpolitical fact tank headquartered in Washington, D.C

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