Study: Beer Summit Drowned Jobs and Healthcare in Race News

Or, how we end up talking about Shirley Sherrod instead of double-digit black unemployment.

By Jessica Strong Jul 27, 2010

The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism released a lengthy report yesterday chronicling representation of African Americans in the mainstream media during President Obama’s first year in office. The headline it generated is no shocker: Everybody was obsessed with the beer summit.

According to the report, which included an analysis of over 67,000 U.S. news stories in all journalistic mediums, the Henry Louis Gates debacle was the most popular story of the year with a connection to the black community. The Gates story received four times the coverage of the economy and healthcare combined, which were the next two leading topics. Overall, stories on Gates, President Obama, Michael Jackson’s death and Times Square bombing suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab accounted for 46.4 percent of coverage related to African Americans.

A separate Pew report on three African American newspapers’ coverage of the Gates story characterized their focus as the "broader question of race relations in the U.S." The mainstream media tended to focus on the story’s political repercussions for President Obama.

The mainstream media study’s broader findings weren’t very surprising either:

  • "African Americans attracted relatively little attention in the U.S. mainstream news media…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…"
  • "Nine percent of the coverage of the nation’s first black president and his administration…had some race angle to it."
  • Presidential coverage "was largely tied to specific incidents or controversies rather than to broader issues and themes."
  • Only 1.9 percent of the examined news stories "related in a significant way to African Americans in the U.S."

Findings also revealed that press coverage of "events involving black newsmakers" was more prominent than topics related to the African American community at-large. In other words, bold-faced names, not community concerns drive the race news, too.

These findings may not be surprising, but they do matter. As Rinku Sen wrote last week, the media’s obsession with race as a personality-driven debate rather than a broader, communal and collective concern is precisely what allowed Andrew Breitbart’s hit job on Shirley Sherrod.