July 28, 2010

When Race Makes News

Percent of Newshole
Don Imus Apr 8-13 2007 26
Rev. Wright Apr. 28-May 4 2008 18
Obama on Race Mar 17-23 2008 17
Shirley Sherrod Jul 19-25 2010 14
Gates Arrest Jul 20-26 2009 12
Jena 6 Sep 16-21 2007 6

14% – Percentage of newshole devoted to the Shirley Sherrod saga from July 19-25

The Shirley Sherrod story attracted major media coverage the week of July 19-25. News of how the Department of Agriculture employee was prematurely ousted after an edited video clip surfaced filled 14% of the media newshole, making it the second-biggest story overall  that week.

That also makes the Sherrod episode the biggest weekly story involving race relations thus far in 2010. And it is the No. 4 story on that topic since PEJ began the News Coverage Index in 2007.

The single biggest week of race-related coverage occurred from April 8-13, 2007, when a major controversy erupted over talk host Don Imus’s comments about the Rutgers women’s basketball team.  Imus referred to the team, the NCAA basketball champs, as “nappy-headed hos,” creating a firestorm that cost him his job.

The next two biggest race stories emerged from the 2008 presidential campaign.

The No. 3 story occurred the week of March 17-23, 2008, when candidate Barack Obama delivered a crucial speech on race after the discovery of videotaped sermons showing his pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, making anti-American and inflammatory comments. It filled 17% of the newshole.

The controversy eventually  began to fade, but was re-ignited  in late April when Wright made a series of high-profile media appearances and Obama spoke more forcefully against his pastor, eventually resigning his membership in the church.  Accounting for 18% of the newshole from April 28-May 4, 2008, that was the second-biggest race story.

The fifth-biggest story since 2007 was the arrest of African American Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates at his home by a white Cambridge police officer. The saga filled 12% the week of July 20-26, 2009. A new PEJ report also finds that in the first 12 months of Barack Obama’s presidency, the Gates episode constituted the top African American storyline in the media.

Finally, No. 6 was the story of six African American boys from Jena, Louisiana who beat up a white classmate. The case sparked outcries of racial injustice as five of the six adolescents were charged with attempted murder, although that was later reduced to battery.  The story—highlighted by a rally led by Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton—filled 5% of the newshole from September 16-21, 2007.

Tricia Sartor of PEJ