The Right Messengers

In July 2010, the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism released Media, Race and Obama's First Year. The white paper detailed what many already knew: The American media often does a terrible job of covering racial issues -- and having a president of color has done little to change that fact.

The report listed several problems, the most glaring of which is that mainstream media gives little substantive attention to issues of concern for or about African Americans. Furthermore, when mainstream outlets do cover black news, it is ad hoc, typically when an unusual incident captures the public's attention. Of the 67,000 mainstream television, Internet, newspaper, and radio news stories scrutinized for the report, only 643 -- less than 2 percent -- were "significant" to the African American community. (Significant is defined as a story in which one-quarter of the content is specifically about a demographic group and its race/ethnicity.)

The same holds true for coverage of the country's Hispanic population, according to Pew. In a 2009 report, researchers found that press coverage of Hispanics was overwhelmingly "event driven." Of more than 34,000 news stories, only 1.8 percent dealt with issues of importance to the Hispanic community or reflected those concerns to a larger audience.

There is less quantitative data about media coverage of Asians, South Asians, and Arabs, but consider the Cordoba House controversy of late 2010, in which a proposed Muslim community center near ground zero in Manhattan became the subject of breathless reporting and commentary. In an analysis by the news website Salon, writer Justin Elliot noted that The New York Times credited the Cordoba House's "public relations missteps" for the ensuing debate. "But this isn't accurate," Elliot wrote. "To a remarkable extent ... the controversy was kicked up and driven by Pamela Geller, a right-wing, viciously anti-Muslim, conspiracy-mongering blogger, whose sinister portrayal of the project was embraced by Rupert Murdoch's New York Post."

In essence, a small-time political blogger with an obsession was able to hijack the news cycle for months. Meanwhile, stories about the DREAM Act, a piece of immigration policy with major implications for Hispanic and Arab immigrants, received far less notice during the same time period. The disproportionate attention paid to the Cordoba House, particularly by cable television and blogs, is one example of how the media often craves controversy over substance and deprives the public of meaningful conversations about race.

Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Pew Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism, says that dynamic is linked to a larger breakdown in the way the American public thinks about race. "Editors have stopped considering the idea that civil rights and race relations are problems that need to be addressed in society," Rosenstiel says. "So when the subjects of race or poverty or social inequity come up, they come up in the context of another issue. It might be health care, it might be Internet policy, it might be immigration, it might be joblessness. But the categories of race and poverty are not major subjects in the news anymore."

Both Rosenstiel and the Pew study note that pundits of color or outlets directly targeting people of color often provide the best coverage of race in America. Of African American newspapers' coverage of the 2009 arrest of black Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, the study concluded: "The discussion and columns offered here took a starkly different angle than the commentary in the mainstream press. While the mainstream media largely assessed political implications for President Obama, the commentary in the black press considered the broader question of race relations in the U.S." Black papers also offered a "less 'us' versus 'them' perspective" than the mainstream, focusing instead on how all parties can advance race relations.

Of course, not all media outlets can be geared toward minorities. But a new world of technology now allows media consumers, as Rosenstiel says, to "broaden the conversation." This, of course, cuts both ways. On the one hand, provocateurs like Sarah Palin have access to such platforms as Facebook and Twitter from which to spark controversy. On the other hand, these tools can also diversify the nation's dialogue. More people of color than ever before are on the Internet, and many African Americans have effectively taken up blogging and tweeting. This gradual democratization means that amateur reporters and bloggers can cover stories important to them and their communities and then inject their work into the public dialogue via Twitter, Reddit, Facebook, or the dozens of other content-sharing sites on the Web.

Without these diverse voices, corporate media becomes the source of news and information for most Americans. Richard Prince, a columnist for the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education, a nonprofit seeking to promote diversity in journalism, believes the competition for advertising dollars has dumbed down race coverage in favor of salacious, easily digested narratives. (Between 2004 and 2009, annual newspaper ad sales plummeted from $8.1 billion to $4.4 billion, according to the Newspaper Association of America.)

"Media is a business, like any other, and the purpose of most media outlets is to make money and be successful," Prince says. "Instead, you're going to find narratives like the one that supposes that all Latinos are immigrants. It's so hard to find mainstream-media coverage about third- and fourth-generation Latinos in America. There are some Latinos who don't even speak Spanish!"

In 2009, CNN produced and aired two thoughtful, in-depth investigations of how African Americans are faring in the U.S. But the audience for the first night of Black in America 2 numbered less than 2 million. By comparison, Glenn Beck's nightly program drew nearly 3 million viewers on an average night in 2009. When media outlets do run more thoughtful, complex coverage, both consumers and other media outlets frequently overlook such reporting, and it's the public who suffers: A January 2011 Rasmussen Reports survey found that only 33 percent of Americans rate race relations in America as good or excellent, while 15 percent say race relations are poor.

To be sure, there are premiere media outlets that are intellectually rigorous about covering race. "The history of American media is that fairly complex journalism has always had a marketplace, because affluent readers are desirable to advertisers," Rosenstiel says. "Having an elite demographic is a good business model, so The New Yorkers of the world thrive, The Atlantics thrive."

The problem is that few papers and television shows have the same luxury of time as do the weekly New Yorker and monthly Atlantic. (It should also be noted that The New Yorker, which has reportedly lost money in past years, has the financial backing of its parent company Conde Nast.) Important, long-form journalism requires a substantial investment, which many outlets simply can't commit, particularly as they try to survive the lasting effects of the recession.

One news organization known for its reporting on racial issues is National Public Radio. Late last year, however, the station found itself at the center of a maelstrom when its political analyst Juan Williams appeared on the Fox News show The O'Reilly Factor and said, "When I get on a plane, if I see people in Muslim garb ... I get nervous." Williams was fired from NPR, which said that his remarks "were inconsistent with our editorial standards and practices."

In the following months, many commentators from both sides of the political spectrum defended Williams. "I'm not someone who believes that journalists should lose their jobs over controversial remarks," wrote Glen Greenwald at Salon, "especially isolated, one-time comments." Fox News quickly offered Williams an analyst gig for $2 million. In January 2011, Ellen Weiss, the former vice president of news at NPR, resigned from the organization for her part in the Williams firing.

"I feel very sad about this whole situation," Williams says. "Now, I'll admit that my politics may not be easy to pin down, but if you look at what I said -- which was, 'I feel an anxiety around people dressed in Muslim garb as I get on planes, but you can't discriminate against people' -- there is no way you can call me a bigot. The problem is that the public didn't really dissect what I had to say."

Williams doesn't believe he should have been fired but adds, "I don't take any pleasure in mistakes that were made or damage to NPR, because I feel that NPR is still an important institution."

Williams wants the media to look for different narratives through which to understand and discuss race, and he believes the next generation is going to demand a change. "I think the younger crowd is increasingly hungry for a new narrative," he says. "What we have to understand is that, to our kids, race is not what it was to us. Right now, that 25-to-34 demographic views race very differently from how [my generation] did. And I think they're much more open to things."

The statistics give credence to that assertion. In a Pew report from 2010, nearly nine in 10 millenials said they approved of interracial dating compared to 38 percent of respondents 65 and older. In a 1999 Hamilton College study on racial attitudes among young people, an overwhelming majority agreed that "it is very important for schools to teach about different races and cultures."

These younger generations have turned to the Internet for news and information. In a 2008 Pew report, 66 percent of people ages 18 to 34 said they got at least some of their news online. What's more, according to the latest data from Pew, 70 percent of blacks and nearly two-thirds of Hispanics are now using the Internet, and minority Internet users are more than twice as likely to use Twitter than are white Internet users.

Rosenstiel says these trends will change media in two different ways. First, it's going to precipitate a rise in self-taught journalists of color who blog and report about issues relating to them and their communities. Just last year, for instance, the White House called upon black websites like The Grio, The Root, Jack and Jill Politics, and The Loop 21 for its black media summit. (Disclosure: I attended that summit as a reporter for The Root.) It was the first event of its kind, and the mainstream media covered it widely -- especially after video clips of the meeting turned up online.

Second, and perhaps more important, is that greater participation from journalists and bloggers of color will push mainstream outlets to reconsider their coverage. Here's one recent example: In a 10-month span from 2009 to 2010, NPR, Business Insider, Slate, and The Awl all ran pieces about the exact same thing: how and why black people use Twitter with such aplomb. Because African Americans had picked up the technology and run with it, mainstream outlets were forced to take notice. Also in 2010, a Twitter hashtag popular among black young people, #wordsthatleadtotrouble, became one of the most popular of the year -- on a social-media site boasting more than 190 million users.

Still, those breakthroughs don't make up for a lack of workplace diversity in the mainstream media. While major outlets once had well-established recruitment programs for journalists of color, many have been canceled or scaled back as a result of the recession. Similarly, newsroom jobs held by blacks were cut by more than 19 percent in 2009, according to the American Society of News Editors, while the overall decline in newsroom jobs was 11 percent.

While a diverse reporting staff is the ideal, Rosenstiel says what's really important is a newsroom that "thinks in a diverse way." If minorities can change the thinking of the newsroom without actually being there -- and it looks like they've started -- the battle is already half won.