Media Blackout in the Age of Obama

By Muwakkil, Salim | In These Times, October 2010 | Go to article overview

Media Blackout in the Age of Obama


Muwakkil, Salim, In These Times


THE ELECTION OF THE NATION'S first black president has done little to improve media coverage of the nation's black community.

According to a new study, black Americans were covered in less than 2 percent of mainstream media stories during the first year of Barack Obama's presidency, though African Americans comprise 12.9 percent of the U.S. population.

What's more, the study by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism noted that when the media did cover black issues, they "tended to focus more on specific episodes than on examining how broader issues and trends affected the lives of blacks generally."

For example, the most popular story during the one-year period covered by the study was the controversial arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., outside of his own house. The report included an analysis of more than 67,000 U.S. news stories across an array of journalistic mediums and found that the Gates story accounted for nearly four times more coverage of African Americans than either of the two biggest national "issue" stories- the economy and healthcare.

The study also found that about 9 percent of coverage of the Obama administration included a racial angle. But that coverage was also "largely tied to specific incidents or controversies rather than to broader issues and themes."

Gates' arrest, the Obama presidency, the death of Michael Jackson and the attempted terrorist attack by "Christmas Day bomber" Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab accounted for nearly half of all coverage that had a substantial mention of African Americans during this time period.

Many harbored hopes that Obama's election would induce a more nuanced media presentation of race relations, or at least prompt a reconsideration of the standard operating procedure. But portraying African Americans through the narrow frame of personalities and episodic controversies is par for the course in the U.S. mainstream.

The declining fortunes of many print news venues has further diminished the value of context-related journalism. These days, information that attracts the most Internet hits has the most currency; nuance is the first to go when popularity is the premium. …

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