Survey Says: Press Failed to Cover Race Relations During Election

Did the mainstream press cover 2008’s historic presidential election with an eye toward examining race relations in America in a fair, accurate and thoughtful manner? Survey says: “No.”

An astounding 92 percent of journalists of color polled for a new survey believe the mainstream media did not effectively cover race relations during the election. The survey was conducted and released this week by the African-American news Web site, The Loop 21, and UNITY: Journalists of Color Inc.

The press’ coverage of race relations during the election was the topic of a panel discussion I took part in yesterday that included Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page, CNN political pundit Leslie Sanchez, moderator Ed Gordon, formerly of NPR, and other journalists of color.

My take on whether coverage of the election illuminated the issues for people of color or provided thoughtful treatment of issues important to people of color? Again, no.

We learned little from the media about substantive issues affecting the lives of African-Americans and Latinos. When the media did focus on race during the election, it too often spun its wheels rehashing stereotypical themes and questions that distracted from real underlying issues facing our communities.

The result? Coverage that was distracting and vapid: Is Obama black enough? (Or, is he too black?) Will whites vote for a black candidate? Will Latinos vote for a black candidate? Do black churches preach hate speech? And on and on …

The media’s failure to seize the opportunity presented by the candidacy — and subsequent election — of its first black president to explore issues affecting people of color was a disappointment to say the least.

Sadly, a part of me was relieved that Obama did not often address race in his campaign because the media would likely have handled it irresponsibly. The issue here is not deliberate distortion on the part of individual journalists, but something broader and systemic.

Much of the problem stems from the fact that people of color do not control the mass dissemination of their images. Too often, other people tell their story and get it wrong. This misrepresentation of our lives and issues causes great harm. The misguided and sensationalistic media coverage of immigration issues this past year is just one example of the troubling outcome of our lack of representation in our nation’s newsrooms.

Again, journalists don’t deserve all the blame for poor coverage of communities of color. Journalists increasingly work in a media environment that is not supportive of quality journalism. Media companies are controlled by owners who care more about the bottom line than serving the public interest. In many cases, these giant media companies have burdened their news operations with massive debt as they expanded beyond their means and bought up more and more media outlets. In seeking to shore up their bank accounts, these huge conglomerates have jettisoned quality journalism to serve us junk news and tired old scripts that are cheap to package and produce.

The trend toward consolidation, fueled by bad business decisions and poor government policy, has hit journalists especially hard. Consolidation has led to record layoffs in recent years. And in a related trend that does nothing to boost race relations coverage, more journalists of color are leaving newsrooms than entering them, while minority ownership of media outlets continues its downward spiral.

While debating coverage of the presidential election is important for improving media coverage, journalists have to advocate for media policies that support and reward quality journalism, not destroy it. Maybe then, we will see issues like race relations receive the coverage they deserve. Let’s hope.