The COVID-19 pandemic is expected to significantly transform many aspects of our way of life; how and what our news media cover will be no exception. However, basic principles of fairness and accuracy will remain central to journalism, and past practices will likely influence future efforts. With this in mind, The Heinz Endowments is publishing a new study on media coverage of Pittsburgh’s African American community for our region to consider as we move forward.
PITTSBURGH, Pa., April 2, 2020 — The Heinz Endowments released a report today that found the majority of local news stories about African Americans in the Pittsburgh region focus on crime and sports – a result similar to one reached nine years ago by an Endowments-funded analysis of local media coverage of black men and boys.
The new study, “Portrayal and Perception II: Content Analysis of Pittsburgh Media Coverage of African Americans,” determined that 72.4 percent of Pittsburgh television and newspaper news stories featuring black people from March 1 to April 30, 2019 – the same two-month period examined in 2011 — were about crime-related issues or sports. The earlier report had revealed that 71.5 percent of the television and newspaper coverage of black men and boys in 2011 focused on crime and sports.
Just as significant as the statistics are the implications of the findings for Pittsburgh’s African American community. Among the report’s conclusions was that such a limited focus in local media coverage indicated implicit racial bias, which news organizations should address. The analysis also described how the narrow portrayals can lead to harmful self-perceptions among African American young people.
This coverage “takes away opportunities to highlight favorable contributions that are being made to communities by people of color of all age groups,” the report said. “For audiences of different races, these perceptions presented by local media outlets can help foster an underserved sense of fear, which could in turn lead to other negative outcomes such as bias or discriminatory behaviors and actions.”
The lack of demonstrative change in Pittsburgh television and newspaper coverage of African Americans after almost a decade is disheartening and intolerable, said Heinz Endowments President Grant Oliphant.
“This type of one-note coverage is not only unfair, it’s also not good journalism,” Mr. Oliphant said. “Local journalism is facing extreme challenges right now. With shrinking resources, it can be tempting to fall back on stereotypes and ‘if-it-bleeds-it-leads’ news coverage. But all media consumers want to see stories that accurately reflect who they are, and in the era of COVID-19, we need to be portraying our entire community’s full humanity and strength, not tired tropes and stereotypes that will be just one more way this crisis harms the most vulnerable among us.”
The full report is available on the Endowments’ website. Its recommendations include that local media organizations learn from African American media outlets, such as the weekly New Pittsburgh Courier newspaper, about the different types of narratives that could be told about black people. The report suggests that the media expand coverage of women and children regardless of race and produce more stories on health issues, one of the less visible topics during the study period across all groups and media outlets.
The analysis also recommends that local funders and the community encourage media within and outside of the television and newspaper establishment to tell a wider range of stories about African Americans to help create a more well-rounded portrayal. The report highlights as an example a 2017 special series on African American girls in Pittsburgh, which was published by PublicSource, a nonprofit online news outlet that receives support from the Endowments.
In addition, the report describes roles for funders and nonprofits that include advancing the use of social media to promote story ideas and knowledgeable experts, and supporting technology education to help develop digital media creators who can address issues such as equity and justice.
The study was conducted by Upstream Analysis, a Eugene, Oregon-based media measurement and research firm, as a follow up of a 2011 analysis by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism that was published in “Portrayal and Perception: Two Audits of News Media Reporting on African American Men and Boys.” The new report was designed to determine if progress had been made in media coverage of black people in the Pittsburgh region and to include a review of coverage of black women and girls. Both studies looked at stories from the three major TV network affiliates – KDKA, WPXI and WTAE – and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and New Pittsburgh Courier newspapers.
Upstream founder and project co-director Janet Harris explained that the late winter-early spring months were selected as the study period because they provided a representative sample of year-round coverage. They avoid special occasions, such as the holiday season from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day, that can be filled with stories that don’t reflect those produced the rest of the year, she said.
In addition to updating the 2011 study, “Portrayal and Perception II” took into account the changing local media landscape, such as the increased use of social media by the public and the rising number of digital news outlets. This included the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s transition from a print newspaper to a digital one in 2016.
Another change from the original study involved making a distinction between stories in which African Americans were accused of crimes and ones in which black individuals were seeking justice for victims. Falling into the latter category were a number of stories on the death of 17-year-old Antwon Rose II, a black youth who was unarmed when he was fatally shot by a white suburban Pittsburgh police officer in 2018.
With the creation of the justice category, the top three topics for African American coverage in local television and newspapers were crime at 27.8 percent, justice at 27 percent, and sports at 17.6 percent, totaling 72.4 percent.
The report divided results by gender to allow direct comparisons with the 2011 findings. The analysis that year found that 40.3 percent of the stories featuring African American males were about sports while 31.2 percent were about crime. In 2019, 20.6% percent of the stories featuring African American males were about sports and 56.9 percent were about crime or justice.
In general, Pittsburgh media report more on crime and justice issues than any other topic when reporting on both black and white people. For the two months reviewed in 2019, the study found that 48.3 percent of the stories about African American women focused on crime or justice. For white men, 39.2 percent were about crime or justice while for white women 38.4 percent were on those topics.
The report found the most well-rounded traditional media coverage of African Americans in the New Pittsburgh Courier. The top three topics covered focusing on African Americans were race/gender issues at 25.5 percent, education at 12.7 percent; and entertainment at 12.7 percent. Business came in a close fourth at 10.9 percent.
On a positive note, the study found that cellphone video and social media technologies have led to an increase in discussions in conventional media about racial and social justice. The report also determined that social media and improved personal technology have altered the media landscape, allowing community members to influence media outlets into covering more issues important to residents.
In order to obtain an accurate and representative comparison between “Portrayal and Perception II” and the original study nine years ago, it was determined that the same media should be examined in order to show clearly what changes had occurred, if any. The Heinz Endowments recognizes that several news outlets were not part of the analysis, including local nonprofit media, some of which did not exist at the time of the original report, and we are mindful of the efforts made by these news organizations to address those critical issues detailed in the new report.
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