Media Misses the Mark When Covering Black Electorate

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Nadra Kareem Nittle
October 26, 2011

When Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain recently remarked that black voters “have been brainwashed into not being open minded, not even considering a conservative point of view,” the mainstream media never challenged his characterization that 42 million African Americans are monolithic in their political views.  

News outlets such as CNN, NPR, USA Today and the New York Daily News simply reported Cain’s reflections on the African-American electorate as if it were fact and without consulting experts who would counter his outrageous accusation.  

This deficient media coverage is a grave disservice to African-Americans.  It belies the reality which is that black voters are casting ballots for candidates that they believe best represent their interests and will improve their quality of life.  And, in most cases, that turns out to be Democrats. If Republicans supported more polices and initiatives that are popular in the black community, there would likely be a significant increase in support from blacks for their candidates. 

Over time, there has been a pattern of gross generalizations about black voters. When California passed a same-sex marriage ban in 2008, black voters were largely held responsible, with widely circulated news reports indicating that blacks overwhelmingly favored the ban. A subsequent analysis of voting data showed that to be untrue. Just like other voters, blacks were almost evenly divided on the issue. 

Moreover, in the 2008 presidential campaign blacks were accused of rallying behind Sen. Barack Obama, the Democratic nominee, only because of his skin color.  This shamefully ignores that blacks perceived the polices promoted by Obama to be far better for their families and their communities than the ones presented by the Republican ticket of Sen. John McCain and Gov. Sarah Palin.       

Such episodes exemplify why black voters deserve more comprehensive media coverage. One solution is for the media to vastly expand its mix of news sources by interviewing blacks of all political persuasions and making more visits to minority communities, where they can interview a people with diverse backgrounds and viewpoints.  

Danielle Belton, who covers politics on her blog, The Black Snob, and is a regular guest on the NPR show ,“Tell Me More,” says that producers of news programs can show the diversity of the black vote by not featuring the same pundits over and over again. Donna Brazile has become the go-to black pundit representing Democrats, while Amy Holmes and Michael Steele fill the role for Republicans, Belton says.

“There’s not a lot of people coming from the middle or coming from the far left, unless you count Al Sharpton,” Belton says. “There isn’t much tendency to make the effort to get different voices.”

Another issue is that political reporters consistently visit black churches to gauge black viewpoints on political issues. But some argue that church-going blacks are not a true representation of the community.  Jason Johnson, a political science professor at Hiram College, says the media must interview a broader segment of the black community.  “You visit a black church if you want to find two groups of black people - people who are age 55 or above or married people,” says Johnson, also author of the new book Political Consultants and Campaigns: One Day to Sell.

In addition, the church audience often excludes key demographic groups – young voters, single adults, those who are not religious and many others.  So, why do reporters continue to visit churches to gauge the political temperature of blacks?

“The media habitually goes to the black church because its safe, established, and well-known, and it’s accustomed to taking the quick and dirty way to do reporting rather than take the time to seek out and go to grassroots community, education, civic, and business groups, and just talk to regular people in the community to get their views on the issues,” says political analyst Earl Ofari Hutchinson, author of How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge.

Clearly, the media needs to branch out and attend other gatherings of blacks, such as major events and conferences with black audiences.  There must be more of an effort to talk politics with a broader segment of the black community, including businesspeople, political bloggers and civil rights organizations.  What they will find are blacks of all persuasions ­­­- Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives and radicals on the left and right ends of the political spectrum.  

Melanie L. Campbell, president and CEO National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, says interviewing and featuring blacks with views diverse viewpoints will likely deepen the debate around the social and economic issues of concern to the African-American electorate.

“It appears that black Republicans tend to be more affluent and accomplished. If this is the case then there could be an added benefit to profile accomplished black Republicans,” Campbell says. “The media does a poor job of covering leftists and as a result moderates come across as much farther to the left than they actually are. Care should be taken to make sure that blacks are not over-represented in this group. It is also important for the media to make certain that Independent blacks are not stereotyped as ‘fringe.’”

Campbell also encourages reporters to include the political views of black women in news stories, saying that the majority of blacks interviewed by the media about political candidates and issues are males.

Unfortunately, the media coverage of blacks and politics frequently fails to put historic black voting patterns in context. For instance, Campbell notes that blacks voted overwhelmingly Republican when Democrats in the South, known as Dixiecrats during the civil rights era, were staunch segregationists.

“If someone like Colin Powell were to run, a large percentages of blacks would likely vote for him,” Campbell says. “He would upset the status quo. Blacks are not brainwashed; they are highly sophisticated voters.”

Furthermore, experts see a clear double standard regarding how the media reports on black support for Obama and white support for white candidates.

For instance, Johnson notes that while the mainstream media widely suggests that blacks only support Obama because he is black, journalists rarely suggested that white women supported Hillary Clinton during the 2008 Democratic primaries simply because she is a white female and rarely suggested that white men backed John McCain only because he is a white male.

To be sure, the overwhelming support that blacks gave President Obama in 2008 has created an environment where the media has assumed that the President will receive unwavering support from blacks, regardless of his policies.  Conservative radio and television hosts and pundits have stressed this point, ignoring that black voters also heavily supported white presidential candidates such as Bill Clinton and Al Gore.

Meanwhile, the main stream media has often overlooked the sharp criticism of President Obama by critics such Professor Cornel West, Commentator Tavis Smiley and Congresswoman Maxine Waters.  Is it because their comments contradict the perception presented by the media that all blacks support the President?  In what may surprise many, minority media outlets have generally carried more reports of blacks critical of the President than what has been found in the mainstream media.

“It’s important (for the mainstream media) to get the views of those blacks who do not support the president, and tell why,” Hutchinson says. “This helps to dispel the myth that all blacks march in lock step on issues that directly or indirectly involve race, politics, and the Obama presidency.”


Links to coverage about Cain’s brainwashed comments

Link to conservative media types suggesting blacks voted for Obama because he’s black


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