Despite having a black president, African Americans attracted little attention in the U.S. mainstream news media during the first year of Barack Obama’s administration. The coverage that existed focused more on specific episodes than on examining how broader issues and trends affected the lives of blacks generally, according to a year-long study by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism and its Social and Demographic Trends Project. In its coverage of race, writes the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, “the press largely responded to breaking news during the [survey period] rather than exploring the state of African Americans or developing African American angles around events or issues in the news.” Among the top 10 storylines during 2009 and early 2010, five were related to individuals and five were tied more to issues in the news. Click through the gallery for the top 10 storylines.
Pew examined more than 67,000 national news stories that appeared between Feb. 16, 2009 and Feb. 15, 2010 in different mainstream media outlets. News surrounding two figures alone -– Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and President Barack Obama -– accounted for 37% of the African American newshole. (Newshole is defined as the total time and space a story takes, not the number of stories.) The largest event with 19.4% of coverage tied to race in the way it was covered–the July 16, 2009 arrest of Henry Louis Gates, who was mistakenly suspected of trying to break in to his own home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Gates accused Sgt. James Crowley, the arresting officer, of racism and the president weighed in saying the police “acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home.” A few days later, Obama was forced to host a beer summit at the White House with Gates, Crowley, and Vice President Joe Biden. (Image: Gates being led away in handcuffs from his home.)
Despite being the first African American president, Obama was only the No. 2 story explicitly related to coverage about African Americans. In all, 17.6% of the coverage of African Americans came through coverage of the Obama administration. Cable television and talk radio devoted the most time to storylines with African American angles, with 2.5% and 2.4%, respectively, of their newshole (time studied on their programs) containing significant mention of blacks. When Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, critics said he had few accomplishments to justify the award and is a defender of war. (Pew notes that the category doesn’t include policy-oriented stories over such matters as healthcare, but that it does include coverage that focused on or assessed the administration.) (Image source: White House)
Coverage of Michael Jackson’s June 25, 2009 death was third on the list with 5.7% of coverage. Thousands of news items focused on the King of Pop’s unexpected death, his legacy, his enormous fanbase, the fate of his three children, his estate, funeral, and many lawsuits.
Despite a 14.7% average unemployment rate for African American men in 2009 (compared with 8.1% for whites), and the high rate of foreclosure for African Americans, the economic crisis was the fourth biggest story in 2009 and early 2010. The economic crisis was the biggest story overall in 2009 according to PEJ’s News Coverage Index. From February 2009 to February 2010, the economic crisis accounted for 21.1% of all news coverage, but less than 1% (0.47%) of that coverage dealt with African Americans. Many of those articles were about African Americans who had sub-prime mortgages or who confronted discrimination in the mortgage process, and the NAACP suing Wells Fargo and HSBC for racist lending practices.
The small number of healthcare stories that included a racial component most often drew attention to disparities in coverage between the races and between the wealthy and the poor, according to Pew. Only 0.6% of overall healthcare coverage had an African American angle, and 4.1% of the African American newshole was devoted to healthcare, according to the Pew study. After months of partisan debate, the Obama administration was able to get passage of a major overhaul of the U.S. healthcare system.
Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian who tried to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight traveling from Amsterdam to Detroit, Michigan, on Christmas Day 2009 sparked about 3.7% of coverage.
The Supreme Court’s ruling that New Haven, Connecticut discriminated against 19 white firefighters garnered 2% of coverage. The hot button issue would later arise with the Supreme Court nomination of Sonia Sotomayor, who had sat on the Second Circuit Court of Appeals and ruled against the firefighters’ appeal.
Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor made the list with 1.8% of coverage because her confirmation hearings to sit on the High Court triggered some debate over her ruling in a case involving white and African American firefighters, and because of her comments about being a “wise Latina.” (In this image, Obama speaks with Sotomayor prior to her investiture ceremony at the Supreme Court Sept. 8, 2009. Image source: White House)
The NAACP’s centennial celebration, at 1.8%, rounded out the list of the biggest storylines with an African American focus, according to Pew. The civil rights group held its annual convention in New York City in July 2009, and a highlight of the summit was an address by President Barack Obama.