Race: Simply an incident or a real issue?

Elinor Tatum | 4/12/2011, 5:26 p.m.

We all know that the Black community gets the short end of the stick when it comes to mainstream media coverage. We are the last ones to get covered if it is positive and the first ones to get covered if it is negative.

To the mainstream media, when they are looking at stories about poverty, the first place they look is into Black communities, while if there is a story about something health-related, they look to white doctors first for information and quotes.

Last week, we had a very small example of a health story that was reported on WNYC. The reporter was speaking with a white doctor about the effects of the sun on the skin. The doctor, a leader in the field of skin cancer, gave advice that seemed to be exclusively geared to our Northern European brothers and sisters: Stay out of the sun and use the highest SPF available. Terrific advice for those with the least amount of natural protection, but advice that fails to take into account the many Black and Brown and Asian people of our city with greater natural protection. Do they not want health advice that considers them as well?

A little story, but one that illustrates how the Black community and other communities of color are a second thought or even a non-thought--when it comes to media coverage--even from those we generally consider our friends in the media.

All too often, the Black community must be that much more extraordinary to garner media attention than our white counterparts. That is why the Black press has been in existence for almost 200 years: to tell our stories, to share our issues and concerns in our own voices with our own motivations.

Yesterday, I received a copy of a report from the Pew Institute that talked about the critical role of the Black press. The report, prepared by The Project for Excellence in Journalism, called "The Media, Race and Obama's First Year," said in a nutshell said that there was little attention paid to Blacks in the mainstream media and that any attention paid to our community was based on specific events rather than on broader issues of race or policy. Of the 67,000 stories studied in the report, only 643 related to Blacks in the United States.

And those stories, of course, were the usual suspects. The incident involving professor Henry Louis Gates and a Cambridge, Massachusetts police officer stood out in the one-year period as the most-covered story about Blacks from February 2009 to February 2010.

Barack Obama becoming president was the second most-covered story about Blacks in the mainstream media--with 18 percent of all race stories focusing on his administration and nearly one-third of all race-related stories tied to the president in some way. The message to America: If we are not talking about Obama, we don't want to talk about Black people. They are to be seen as little as possible and not heard.

And as we live in the so-called "age of Obama," it is interesting to note that when a story is, in fact, written about the president, one in ten stories has a racial element in it or it is tied to a specific case or incident.