Media Use and Civic Participation in the African-American Population: Exploring Participation among Professionals and Nonprofessionals

Article excerpt

Empirical research has shown a positive relationship between local news media use, community integration, and political participation for the general population. This study examined whether the media serve such functions for African-American professionals and nonprofessionals. Both samples included fairly heavy media users; however, there was no significant relationship between local media use and civic participation. Church involvement, however, was a strong predictor of participation. Two major findings emerged: (1) locAl news media do not serve the civic information needs of African Americans, and (2) when compared with local news media, interpersonal networks more strongly influence African Americans' civic participation.

The media are important facilitators of information for the general public because they gather, process, and disseminate information. The information they present, and the manner in which they choose to present it, affects how individuals, groups, communities, and organizations think about and interact among themselves and with others.1 When examining general population samples, researchers typically report a positive relationship between media use, community integration, political knowledge, and political participation.2 For various reasons, this positive relationship may not endure among minority populations.

This study seeks to establish whether local and national news media stimulate civic participation for African Americans. The study explored whether African-American professionals are better served by, or make better use of, local and national media than nonprofessionals. Survey respondents consisted of two groups, African American professionals (i.e., university faculty and professional staff) and nonprofessionals (i.e., public housing residents). The former is often held up as being integrated into mainstream society; the latter is often portrayed as on the outskirts of mainstream society. Thus, comparing the groups allows for a study of intra-race differences as they relate to professionalism and civic participation.

Because many African-American professionals have superior resources (e.g., education, income, and employment), and are therefore often better integrated into mainstream society, the information provided by the media may be more relevant to their information needs. This perspective is in line with Tichenor, Donohue, and Olien's knowledge gap hypothesis.3 The hypothesis suggests that professionals' higher socioeconomic status will result in their acquiring information faster than nonprofessionals. Moreover, the information provided by the media is likely to be more relevant to the information needs of professionals than nonprofessionals.4

African Americans and the Media

Historically, African Americans have had an ambivalent relationship with the mainstream media. For more than half a century, African Americans have registered complaints against the mainstream mass media, accusing them of portraying the African-American community narrowly and in a negative light and failing to serve as advocates for community-related concerns. The media's manner of interacting with this community received considerable attention during the height of the civil rights era. The media were frequently chastised for failing to help the general public understand the perilous conditions in which many black Americans lived. In an attempt to explain what went wrong, the Kerner Commission stated that the news media portrayed the 1967 riots as black-white conflicts rather than placing them in the context of people stressed by deteriorating economic and living conditions.5

In support of the Kerner Commission's perspective, Martindale reported that "explanations of the causes" behind the protests received the least amount of space in newspapers.6 Little has changed in the three decades since the release of the Kerner Commission Report. The news media still fail to provide the general public with an understanding of many of the issues facing the African-American community. …