Gates, Not Obama, Biggest African-American Story in Mainstream Press: Pew


Despite having the first African-American in the White House, African-Americans as a group did not draw much attention from the mainstream press, according to a new study released by the Pew Research Center and its Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ).

And what coverage there was focused on events rather than issues about race.

In fact, the arrest of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates turned out to be the biggest race-related story during the presidents' first year in office, claiming 19.4% of stories vs. 17.6% of stories about Barack Obama as the first African-American president, though the presidnet was also a player in the story about his friend Gates when he called the arrest "stupid" and ultimately helped make peace through a White House "beer summit."

A story about race had to have at least 25% of its content about race or a specific racial group, according to Pew.

The study found that 9% of the coverage of President Obama had some racial element to it, primarily Rep. Joe Wilson calling the president a liar and Senator Harry Reid apologizing for remarks about the president's skin color. Cable and talk radio focused the most on race, with 2.5% and 2.4% of their stories, respectively, containing "significant mention of African Americans."

Newsmakers, rather than issues, drove coverage of African-Americans, including the death of Michael Jackson and the attempted terrorist attack by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, which along with Gates and Obama accounted for almost half (46%) of all the coverage with substantial mentions of African-Americans.

According to the Pew study, the mainstream press explored "substantial African-American angles" for only two issues, the economy and health care, but that was less than 10% of the total African-American-focused coverage.

The study looked at 67,000 news stories between February 2009 and February 2010. Only 1.9% of those related to African-Americans "in a significant way," though that was more than the 1.3% to Hispanics and 0.2% to Asian-Americans. Do the findings also mean the media are becoming more color blind?

"In some cases, perhaps it does mean a less color blind media," said PEJ deputy director Amy Mitchell. "But one of the things we see is that media seems shy to tackle the complex issues of race and race relations, and that even when those issues emerge from events, the media, to a large degree, tends to politicize it and focus on individuals rather than taking a broader look."