The Right Messengers: Can the Media Responsibly Cover Race? Only with the Guidance of a More Diverse Audience

By Jefferson, Cord | The American Prospect, April 2011 | Go to article overview

The Right Messengers: Can the Media Responsibly Cover Race? Only with the Guidance of a More Diverse Audience


Jefferson, Cord, The American Prospect


In July 2010, the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism released Media, Race and Obama's First Year. The white paper detailed what many already knew: The American media often does a terrible job of covering racial issues--and having a president of color has done little to change that fact.

The report listed several problems, the most glaring of which is that mainstream media gives little substantive attention to issues of concern for or about African Americans. Furthermore, when mainstream outlets do cover black news, it is ad hoc, typically when an unusual incident captures the public's attention. Of the 67,000 mainstream television, Internet, newspaper, and radio news stories scrutinized for the report, only 643--less than 2 percent--were "significant" to the African American community. (Significant is defined as a story in which one-quarter of the content is specifically about a demographic group and its race/ethnicity.)

The same holds true for coverage of the country's Hispanic population, according to Pew. In a 2009 report, researchers found that press coverage of Hispanics was overwhelmingly "event driven." Of more than 34,000 news stories, only 1.8 percent dealt with issues of importance to the Hispanic community or reflected those concerns to a larger audience.

There is less quantitative data about media coverage of Asians, South Asians, and Arabs, but consider the Cordoba House controversy of late 2010, in which a proposed Muslim community center near ground zero in Manhattan became the subject of breathless reporting and commentary. In an analysis by the news website Salon, writer Justin Elliot noted that The New York Times credited the Cordoba House's "public relations missteps" for the ensuing debate. "But this isn't accurate," Elliot wrote. "To a remarkable extent ... the controversy was kicked up and driven by Pamela Geller, a right-wing, viciously anti-Muslim, conspiracy-mongering blogger, whose sinister portrayal of the project was embraced by Rupert Murdoch's New York Post."

In essence, a small-time political blogger with an obsession was able to hijack the news cycle for months. Meanwhile, stories about the DREAM Act, a piece of immigration policy with major implications for Hispanic and Arab immigrants, received far less notice during the same time period. The disproportionate attention paid to the Cordoba House, particularly by cable television and blogs, is one example of how the media often craves controversy over substance and deprives the public of meaningful conversations about race.

Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Pew Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism, says that dynamic is linked to a larger breakdown in the way the American public thinks about race. "Editors have stopped considering the idea that civil rights and race relations are problems that need to be addressed in society," Rosenstiel says. "So when the subjects of race or poverty or social inequity come up, they come up in the context of another issue. It might be health care, it might be Internet policy, it might be immigration, it might be joblessness. But the categories of race and poverty are not major subjects in the news anymore."

Both Rosenstiel and the Pew study note that pundits of color or outlets directly targeting people of color often provide the best coverage of race in America. Of African American newspapers' coverage of the 2009 arrest of black Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, the study concluded: "The discussion and columns offered here took a starkly different angle than the commentary in the mainstream press. While the mainstream media largely assessed political implications for President Obama, the commentary in the black press considered the broader question of race relations in the U.S." Black papers also offered a "less 'us' versus 'them' perspective" than the mainstream, focusing instead on how all parties can advance race relations. …

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