Forget America, is Journalism Ready for a Black President?

The first in our newly-minted occasional series of "Research Reports" -- this one looks at how the press has been dealing with the possibility of American voters electing their first African-American president.

“Is America Ready for a Black President?” It’s a question that many media outlets have posed recently ahead of a possible presidential run by Senator Barack Obama. But instead of asking if the country is prepared, the press would do well to ask itself, “Is Journalism Ready?” Not necessarily, say political scientists studying media coverage of minority candidates. Their research on black politicians running in majority-white districts turns up some touchy historical patterns that are germane to both Obama-mania and also the national media’s readiness to cover a highly competitive white-black contest.

Three main batches of research — the most recent published this winter in the Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics builds on two others published in the summer 1999 Journal of Politics and as the book Voting Hopes or Fears? — focus on mayoral races in New York and Seattle in 1989, and national congressional contests in 1992, 1994, and 2004. It’s a small sample by social scientific standards, and shouldn’t be considered conclusive. But the primary limit on its size is also a commentary: blacks are still largely absent in the pool of candidates seeking state and national office, let alone the pool of winners. In the 130 years since Reconstruction, only two African Americans have been elected governor, and only three have been elected senator. None have come from a state more southern than Virginia.

Three interesting results emerge from these content analyses of national and local newspaper coverage. First, journalists disproportionately underscore the race of black candidates, while virtually never identifying white politicians by their color, no matter the circumstances. Second, journalists covering a black candidate are more likely to emphasize party affiliation and voter demographics, while providing relatively less coverage of substantive issues; fewer policy questions are discussed in white-black elections than in any other scenario. Finally, journalists tend to muzzle racial messages from candidates, or campaigns, while nevertheless accenting race themselves.

It’s highly doubtful that journalists act deliberately to hurt black candidates (or to protect them), but these findings still suggest that hope is triumphing over reality when columnists such as the Boston Globe’s Jeff Jacoby conclude, without qualification, that America is sufficiently color-blind to float Obama for president. Despite a few press surveys to the contrary, it’s still more of a dream than an established fact that voters disregard race at the polls.

In Voting Hopes or Fears?, Keith Reeves, formerly of Harvard and currently a professor at Swarthmore, addresses this point, arguing that the press’s emphasis on race undercuts black candidates by cuing persistent white prejudices. Paranoid though it may sound, his assertion gets a boost from a survey finding that white voters are drastically less willing to vote for a fictitious mayoral candidate who is identified in newspaper stories as black, than for that same fictitious candidate when he is identified as white. The black “Christopher Hammond” garnered 13 percent fewer votes than his white self and the number of undecided voters more than doubled to 49 percent, which suggests skin color “triggered uneasiness and apprehension” among respondents. Of course, real life is more complex but reporters evidently agree that race remains relevant to voter behavior. In Reeve’s analysis, three-quarters of the New York Times articles about the Dinkins-Giuliani mayoral contest in 1989 referenced the race of at least one ethnic group in the electorate. Countering Reeves in the Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics, NYU professor Charlton McIlwain argues that too little data exists to establish a “causal link” between racial coverage and willingness to vote for a black candidate. However, he’s far from sanguine on the subject of influence. “When the media coverage suggests, ‘Hey, we should make race an issue when we decide this election,’ the press may unwittingly aid and abet racialized messages from other sources,” be they sleazy competitors, think tanks, or other partisan groups, McIlwain said in a recent phone interview.

If Barack Obama makes his presidential intentions official in the next few weeks, as he’s expected to do, no one is suggesting that the press should ignore his race. We live in a color-conscious society, and journalism should reflect what’s on our minds. But that’s just the point. If Obama runs, the press will need to deal more, not less, openly with race in order to uphold one it’s major functions as a watchdog: defending the values of an egalitarian society. For journalism to be ready for a black president, it must be ready—particularly on a local level — to referee racially inflammatory messages, like last October’s attack ad against Tennessee senate candidate Harold Ford Jr. (It presented a white woman suggestively urging Ford, a black man, to “call me,” before the slogan “Just not Right” — uncomfortably close as some national commentators have noted to “Just not White.”) That’s how the press begins to show that it’s ready for a black president, and slowly, so does America.

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Tony Dokoupil co-authors the Research Report column for CJR. He’s a Ph.D. candidate in communications at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism.