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Nieman Journalism Lab
Pushing to the future of journalism — A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard

A new window on race

“It did seem fair to anticipate that coverage of a black president would result in more diversity in the overall subjects we the media cover.”

The wall-to-wall coverage generated by the Sandy Hook elementary shooting elicited empathy and compassion from even the world’s most jaded and objective journalists, but also evoked some soul searching and uncomfortable analysis from many of us, particularly journalists of color. As I noted in my own coverage of the tragedy, while 26 people were murdered in one day in Newtown, equally tragic are the 26 people shot, and two killed, in one night in Chicago this summer. Those shootings did not elicit similar wall-to-wall, worldwide coverage, and many media critics, as well as those of us in the media who are people of color, have been forced yet again to examine the role that class and race play in who and what we choose to cover and how much we cover what we choose to.

There was much hope generated by the election of the first black president four years ago, with many unrealistically presuming he would solve all of America’s remaining racial ills. While that was not a fair burden to place on President Barack Obama or his administration, it did seem fair to anticipate that coverage of a black president would result in more diversity in the overall subjects we the media cover. Yet despite the fact that gun violence has long been a leading cause of death of young black men, and despite the fact that the president is from a city that has experienced some of the worst gun violence in America in the last year, it still took gun violence affecting a predominantly white community to generate extensive coverage of the topic.

I predict this will change in 2013. The reason? Because with his re-election safely in the rearview, President Obama will no longer feel encumbered by the politics of discussing race and racial issues as he did in his first term. As a result, the media will likely be privy to much more candid discussions of complicated policy issues — many of them having to do with race in some way, such as gun violence, the epidemic of black male unemployment, race-based health disparities, racial profiling, and many others — and as a result it will be more likely to cover them. Additionally, 2013 will mark a historic one for civil rights. Both the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 100th birthday of Rosa Parks will be commemorated, ensuring the media revisits our country’s evolution on civil rights and where we stand today. Such coverage will be good not only for journalism, but frankly for our country.