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WHY BLACK MEDIA MATTERS
Among the rich findings in this report are the following key takeaways about Black media coverage during the COVID-19 pandemic and nationwide protests against racial injustice:
- Black media publishes, by a factor of as high as six times, more coverage than mainstream media on issues of importance to Black communities, including racism, health disparities, and voting access.
- Nearly one in every four (23%) articles in Black media mentioned racism or related issues, as compared with less than one in ten articles (8%) in mainstream media.
- Within coronavirus coverage, Black media wrote five times more than mainstream media on the disproportionate racial impact of the pandemic, and nearly twice as much as mainstream media on frontline and essential workers.
- Black media covered a variety of health issues of particular relevance to Black communities at higher levels than mainstream media, including maternal health, hypertension, diabetes, HIV/AIDS, and sickle cell disease.
- The issue of voting access was included in 12% of all politics stories in Black media, which is more than twice the percentage for mainstream media (5%).
- Black media leads the way on stories related to racism, putting focus on these stories at higher levels and earlier in the news cycle than mainstream media.
- Black media centers the community in coverage and humanizes the individuals and groups in the news.
- Black media used the word “Black” frequently in coverage, in an explicit naming of Black people and communities in reporting the news. The word “Black” was consistently in the most frequently used 100 words across various topics, and in many cases was uniquely prevalent when compared with the top words used by mainstream media.
- Black media consistently had certain social identities emphasized for a variety of topics – community, family, women, and children foremost among them. Mainstream media did not use these words with similar frequency.
- Black media connects news events across subjects to cover wider issues of injustice, including threats to voting access, disparities in medical care, and policing and mass incarceration.
- Black media provides historical context to present day challenges. This is done by explicitly including historical events in related breaking news, as well as by linking related news events such as police killings of Black people.
BLACK MEDIA HAS GREATER COVERAGE ON ISSUES OF IMPORTANCE TO BLACK COMMUNITIES
Looking at the concept of attention to topics through the metric of normalized percent of stories matching our topic queries, we can see that Black media has higher coverage levels on several key issues. Not only did Black media write more about issues such as racism, health disparities, and voting access, but the proportion of coverage these issues accounted for in Black media was as much as six times higher than in mainstream media.
Nearly one in every four articles in Black media mentioned racism and related issues.
Racism, Black Lives Matter, and Police Brutality
Black media dedicated nearly three times as much coverage to racism and related issues than mainstream media. In Black media, 23% of all articles, or nearly one in every four articles, mentioned this topic. In mainstream media, the coverage level was only 8%, or less than one in every 10 articles. For all the subtopics of racism we identified, Black media had coverage levels between 1.5x and 6x greater than mainstream media.
Notably, the killings of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor were the subtopics in which Black media had the most significantly higher coverage over mainstream media, dedicating approximately six times the amount of coverage to them. In fact, Black media paid more attention to Breonna Taylor (2.58% of coverage) than mainstream media paid to George Floyd (2.37% of coverage), despite Floyd’s murder being the most covered of any racism subtopic by mainstream media. Coverage of Breonna Taylor is also an example of Black media emphasizing a story earlier than mainstream media, a finding detailed later in this report.
The single highest day of coverage to the subject of racism by Black media was June 14, 2020, when coverage reached 68% of stories amid massive national response to the murder of George Floyd. This is twice the level of the highest date in mainstream media, when coverage reached 34% on June 7, 2020. Between late May and early June 2020, in the height of the news cycle around Floyd’s killing, peak date levels of coverage to racism subtopics were consistently twice as high in Black media as in mainstream media.
Interestingly, the most marked difference in coverage levels at peak dates is for the subtopic of white supremacy/privilege. This points to a difference in framing between Black media and mainstream media of Floyd’s murder and aftermath, where Black media were bringing in the thematic issue of white supremacy.
Figure I. Headline from Black Star News in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the ensuing protests
Juneteenth was one other news event where peak daily coverage was twice as high in Black media than in mainstream media. On Juneteenth 2020, 32% of all articles in Black media mentioned Juneteenth, slavery, reparations, or ADOS (American Descendants of Slavery), while only 12% of articles in mainstream media mentioned the terms.
While Black media and mainstream media had similar proportions of coverage to the coronavirus pandemic (41% of all articles in Black media, and 43% of all articles in mainstream media), there were two subtopics in which Black media had notably higher coverage: the disproportionate racial impact of the pandemic, and essential or frontline workers.
Within coronavirus coverage, the proportion of articles mentioning structural, systemic, or clinical racism, health disparities or inequities, or disproportionate impacts on Black people or communities was five times higher in Black media than in mainstream media. Such articles accounted for only 1.18% of mainstream media’s coronavirus coverage, but 6.29% of Black media’s.
Similarly, within coronavirus coverage, Black media mentioned essential or frontline workers in 3.37% of stories, while mainstream media mentioned these workers in only 1.75% of coronavirus stories, a difference of nearly a factor of two. Again, during the first wave of the pandemic in April and May 2020, daily coverage to COVID-19 and frontline or essential workers reached almost 6.5% of all stories published by Black media, while staying below 2.5% of all stories in mainstream media.
Black media covered all of our selected health subtopics at higher levels than mainstream media. The health conditions and subtopics were specifically selected by the research team for their pertinence to Black individuals and communities. Similar to what was seen in coronavirus coverage, health disparities was the subtopic with the greatest difference in coverage levels between Black and mainstream media.
Health disparities is the subtopic that had the greatest difference in overall coverage between Black media and mainstream media. When looking specifically at how many health stories are about health disparities we see a similar ratio between the two media ecosystems: health disparities were mentioned in over 8% of health stories in Black media, and only 2% of health stories in mainstream media.
Similarly, medical mis/distrust is mentioned in over 3% of health stories in Black media, and on individual dates coverage rose to as high as 4% to 5% of all stories. But in mainstream media, only 1.5% of health stories mentioned the subtopic, and on no single day did coverage reach 2% of all stories. This was at a time when the issue of medical trust has been of national importance with the rollout of the coronavirus prevention measures, including vaccines.
Black media wrote slightly more about politics than mainstream media (31.99% of stories, and 27.04% of stories, respectively), and there were two subtopics where Black media had more than two times the coverage level of mainstream media: voting access, and mentions to Kamala Harris.
In Black media, voting access was mentioned in 4% of all stories, and 12% of politics stories. Coverage reached a peak of over 18% of all stories in July 2020, in reporting on the death of Representative John Lewis. Comparatively, in mainstream media, voting access was mentioned in less than 1.5% of stories overall and 5% of politics stories, and there was no discernible increase to the subject around any key events. This is particularly notable as the query parameters for voting access included the terms “voter registration” and “mail-in voting”; despite mail-in voting being a large component of mainstream media’s political coverage in conjunction with accusations of a fraudulent election, Black media still covered the overall issue more than twice as frequently.
Vice President Kamala Harris also received more than twice as much coverage in Black media than mainstream media. The peak of her coverage was on Election Day, when she was mentioned in 39% of all stories in Black media, and just 15% of all stories in mainstream media. For the entire research time period, which included her serving as vice president, she was mentioned in 3.8% of all stories in Black media, and just 1.3% of stories in mainstream media.