The storylines that generated the most press attention on African Americans were driven primarily by black figures who made news. In its coverage of race, in other words, the press largely responded to breaking news during the year studied rather than exploring the state of African Americans or developing African American angles around events or issues in the news.
Among the top-ten storylines during 2009 and early 2010, five stemmed from individuals who made news and five were tied more to issues in the news. Stories surrounding the five individuals accounted for 48.3% of all African American coverage – more than three times the coverage of the top five issues (15.1%).
News surrounding two figures alone – Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates and President Barack Obama – accounted for more than a third (37%) of the African American newshole.
Other individuals to spark coverage during the time period studied were Michael Jackson, who died on June 25, 2009; Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian who attempted to attack the Northwest Airlines flight on December 25, 2009; and Sonia Sotomayor, whose confirmation hearings to become a Supreme Court justice triggered some debate over her ruling in a case involving white and African American firefighters.
The economic crisis, the biggest story overall in 2009 according to PEJ’s News Coverage Index, accounted for 5.4% of all African American coverage. That makes it less than a third as prominent in African American news as the Gates arrest – a story that lasted just a couple of weeks and directly impacted only a handful of individuals. By contrast, the economic crisis was ongoing throughout the entire year under study and affected virtually everyone in America.
The other issue that generated any substantial African American angle was health care in America, at 4.1% of the African American newshole. Most of these stories looked at disparities in medical treatment among different socioeconomic groups; addressed diseases that disproportionately impact African Americans; or questioned whether opposition to Obama’s healthcare plan was based on race.