On March 16, 1827 in New York City, a group of free Black men founded Freedom’s Journal, the first newspaper owned by, led by and for Black Americans in the United States.
In that inaugural four-page broadsheet, Samuel Cornish and John Russwurm, the editors and proprietors noted, “The peculiarities of this Journal, render it important that we should advertise to the world the motives by which we are actuated, and the objects which we contemplate. We wish to plead our own cause. Too long have others spoken for us. Too long has the publick been deceived by misrepresentations, in things which concern us dearly…”
The clear intention laid out in this founding document spoke to the need for Black press and set the tone for the role Black media still play in our communities and Black society at large. Nearly 200 years later, Black media continue to create a space where Black folks can speak for ourselves about issues of importance and combat stereotypes that harm us.
This role of the Black press was both needed and visible over the past 18 months when the convergence of the worst pandemic in US history and state violence both were disproportionately impacting Black Americans. This report, a comparative content analysis of the Black press and US mainstream media, shows the ways that Black media have continued the tradition started by the Journal in a contemporary context.
In the past 18 months, Black media uniquely focused on children, schools and students across topic areas. This focus of Black press was noted by the Freedom’s Journal, which stated, “Education being an object of the highest importance…we shall…urge upon our brethren the necessity and expediency of training their children, while young, to habits of industry, and thus forming them for becoming useful members of society.”
The Journal also noted, “The civil rights of a people being of the greatest value, it shall ever be our duty to vindicate our brethren, when oppressed, and to lay the case before the publick. We shall also urge our brethren, (who are qualified by the laws of the different states) the expediency of using their elective franchise; and of making an independent use of the same.”
Nearly 200 years later, Black media have continued to advocate for justice and for the Black community to vote in order to counteract the challenges Black communities have faced related to voting access, the pandemic and systemic racism. Black media play this role in an incomparable way. Even after the death of George Floyd, mainstream media did not connect these issues to voting and justice like Black media did.
Black media cover Africa and other countries of the African diaspora more than mainstream media. This was also an explicit goal Cornish and Russwurm shared in their inaugural edition, stating, “Useful knowledge of every kind, and every thing that relates to Africa, shall find a ready admission into our columns…”
Finally, Black media center the humanity of people who are often dehumanized by society and not given that by mainstream media. Black media accurately call people killed by police brutality victims, sons and daughters. That thread of empathy and recognition of everyone’s humanity and dignity was first stitched in the Freedom’s Journal. It noted, “And while these important subjects shall occupy the columns of the Freedom’s Journal, we would not be unmindful of our brethren who are still in the iron fetters of bondage. They are our kindred by all the ties of nature; and though but little can be [affected] by us, still let our sympathies be poured forth, and our prayers in their behalf, ascend to Him who is able to succour them.”
Black media were important in 1827, and they are just as critical today. This report aims to provide evidence as to why Black media matters now. We must work to ensure that Black media will not just survive, but thrive for generations to come.
Black Media Initiative Director
Center for Community Media
Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York
- Black media publishes, by a factor of as high as six times, more coverage than mainstream media on issues of importance to Black communities, including racism, health disparities, and voting access.
- Nearly one in every four (23%) articles in Black media mentioned racism or related issues, as compared with less than one in ten articles (8%) in mainstream media.
- Within coronavirus coverage, Black media wrote five times more than mainstream media on the disproportionate racial impact of the pandemic, and nearly twice as much as mainstream media on frontline and essential workers.
- Black media covered a variety of health issues of particular relevance to Black communities at higher levels than mainstream media, including maternal health, hypertension, diabetes, HIV/AIDS, and sickle cell disease.
- The issue of voting access was included in 12% of all politics stories in Black media, which is more than twice the percentage for mainstream media (5%).
- Black media leads the way on stories related to racism, putting focus on these stories at higher levels and earlier in the news cycle than mainstream media.
- Black media centers the community in coverage and humanizes the individuals and groups in the news.
- Black media used the word “Black” frequently in coverage, in an explicit naming of Black people and communities in reporting the news. The word “Black” was consistently in the most frequently used 100 words across various topics, and in many cases was uniquely prevalent when compared with the top words used by mainstream media.
- Black media consistently had certain social identities emphasized for a variety of topics – community, family, women, and children foremost among them. Mainstream media did not use these words with similar frequency.
- Black media connects news events across subjects to cover wider issues of injustice, including threats to voting access, disparities in medical care, and policing and mass incarceration.
- Black media provides historical context to present day challenges. This is done by explicitly including historical events in related breaking news, as well as by linking related news events such as police killings of Black people.
Our analysis framework for this corpus was built around five overarching topics of coverage decided by the research team: COVID-19, health, racism, politics, and culture and identity. Within each topic, we created between five and 20 subtopics, iteratively developing keyword-based queries to isolate relevant coverage (see Appendix 2). For each of these subtopics, the Media Cloud system produced data in the dimensions of attention, language, and entity representation.
- Attention. Media Cloud presents the count of stories matching a keyword query over the total number of stories published by the selected media source(s) in a given time, thereby calculating a normalized percent of coverage and allowing for comparison of attention between topics or media sources. Spikes in attention on particular dates can reveal key events driving coverage.
- Language. Media Cloud takes a random sample of 1,000 stories matching the keyword query, and parses the text to calculate the most frequently used words in coverage. Comparisons of top words between media collections or topics allow for identification of words that are uniquely prevalent to one subset. This can point to differences in framing and narrative.
- Entity Representation. Media Cloud takes a random sample of up to 5,000 stories and runs entity extraction to isolate from story text the people, organizations, and geographic places mentioned in coverage. It reports the percentage of stories that include each entity.
In addition to analyzing this data for the Black media publications, we also ran these subtopic queries against our library of stories from a collection of US mainstream media sources during the same timeframe, a total of over 4.4 million stories. This comparative approach allowed for quantitative insight as to differences in attention and framing between the two media ecosystems.