A Study of African Americans in U.S. News Coverage

As a group, African Americans attracted relatively little attention in the U.S. mainstream news media during the first year of Barack Obama’s presidency — and what coverage there was tended to focus 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.

From early 2009 through early 2010, the biggest news story related to African Americans was the controversy triggered by the arrest last summer of a prominent black Harvard University professor by a white Cambridge, Massachusetts police officer. It accounted for nearly four times more African American-related coverage than did either of two biggest national “issue” stories covered by the mainstream media during the same period – the economy and health care.

The study finds that 9% of the coverage of the nation’s first black president and his administration during Obama’s first year in office had some race angle to it. Here, too, this coverage was largely tied to specific incidents or controversies rather than to broader issues and themes.

These findings come from an examination of more than 67,000 national news stories that appeared between February 16, 2009 and February 15, 2010 in different mainstream media outlets, including newspapers, cable and network television, radio, and news websites.

Just 643 of those stories, 1.9% of the total newshole examined by the study, related in a significant way to African Americans in the U.S. [1]  (To be considered a “significant” part of a given story, 25% of the content of that story must be about a demographic group and its race/ethnicity). However, this was more coverage than was given in the same time period to two other minority groups — Hispanics (1.3%) and Asian Americans (0.2%). As a percentage African Americans make up 12.9% of the U.S. population.

The press coverage that did emerge tended to be a reaction to events involving black newsmakers rather than to issues relating to African Americans more generally. The arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, the Obama presidency, the death of Michael Jackson and the attempted Northwest Airlines terrorist attack by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab accounted for nearly half (46.4%) of all coverage that had a substantial mention of African Americans during this time period.

The press explored substantial African American angles for just two of the major issues facing the country – the economic crisis and the health care debate. But together these stories accounted for less than 10% of the total African American-focused coverage overall. (Together, the economy and health care, accounted for 33.5% of all coverage studied).

A separate Pew Research analysis of three African American newspapers reveals a very different approach to the coverage of the Gates incident. While the mainstream media largely assessed political implications for President Obama, the commentary in the black press considered the arrest itself and the broader question of race relations in the U.S.


1. Our measurement here is based on newshole, which is total time and space a story takes, not the number of stories.  Therefore, 643 of 67,245 is a different percentage than the 1.9% of the newshole.