Connecting Us to the Historical Fight for Justice
Black Media Connects News Events to Wider Issues of Justice
Through a combination of attention and language data, we see evidence of Black media creating narrative arcs that connect news events across subjects with a core and common focus on an issue of injustice. Issues are covered from a systemic frame, which is often unique from mainstream media. Illustratively, in the case of coverage of sexism and #MeToo, “systemic” and “intersectional” are words within the top 100 most frequently used by Black media, but not by mainstream coverage. Similarly, across topics, the word “justice” itself was frequently in the top words in Black media’s coverage. The cross-cutting justice issues focused on by Black media are detailed further in this section.
Figure XII. Word tree showing the keyword “justice” in context within coverage of religion in Black media, one of the issues in which “justice” was uniquely prevalent
Click the image to see a higher resolution version of this tree map.
Threats to Voting Access
As noted earlier, Black media covered voting access at higher levels than mainstream media. It also uniquely had the term “suppression” in the top 100 words for political coverage, as well as in the subtopic covering claims of a fraudulent election. Importantly, Black media connected the issue of voting access to coverage of the coronavirus pandemic, health, and racism. The issue was not only mentioned, but highlighted frequently. In COVID coverage, “voting” was among the top 100 most frequently used words by Black media, and “vote” was among the top words in coverage about the disproportionate racial impact of the pandemic. These terms did not show up in the top words for mainstream media’s pandemic coverage. Relatedly, in coverage about health disparities generally, “vote” and “voting” were uniquely prevalent in Black media. In racism coverage, “vote” was among the top words overall and for the slavery/Juneteenth subtopic in Black media only, a striking omission on the part of mainstream media. Similarly, “election” was among the top words in Black media’s Black Lives Matter coverage.
Figure XIII. Article excerpt from The Root focusing on voting access and the pandemic
Black media’s greater focus on Georgia in the context of politics is further evidence of this trend, as it is a state at the forefront of voting rights struggles and advances. Black media included “Georgia” in the top 100 words for all politics coverage, while mainstream media did not. Georgia was also uniquely centered by Black media in the subtopics of immigration, Donald Trump, and fraudulent election claims.
Finally, this strong emphasis on voting and democratic rights may explain language differences in the way Black media covered the January 6, 2021 Capitol insurrection. Black media was more likely than mainstream media to use terms that more clearly and starkly labeled the event and involved individuals as threats, including: “insurrectionists,” “supremacists,” “terrorists,” and “lies.” This is mirrored in language choices uniquely prevalent in Black media in other political subtopics: “lie, “mob,” “stolen,” and “steal” in coverage of fraudulent election claims; and “dangerous,” and “supremacists” in coverage of QAnon.
Disparities in Medical Care
The concept of access was a clear focus in Black media’s coverage of the pandemic and health overall, which was not echoed in mainstream media. “Access” was among the top 100 most frequently used words in Black media, but not in mainstream media, for coverage of vaccines, vaccine hesitancy, testing, essential and frontline workers, disproportionate racial impact, and impact on learning. It was also uniquely prevalent in Black media’s coverage of sickle cell disease, HIV/AIDS, and suicide.
The related issue of medical distrust was uniquely emphasized by Black media. Within COVID coverage, for articles about vaccine hesitancy, the words “access,” “trust,” and “efficacy,” were among the most frequently used words by Black media only. Coverage of maternal health provided a strong example, where Black media had “bias,” and “racism” among the most prevalent words, but mainstream media did not. Black media also uniquely emphasized “racism” in the coverage of diabetes, hypertension, healthcare, and non-COVID health stories. Perhaps most notably, Black media had the Tuskegee experiment and the word “history” among the top words in coverage of medical mis/distrust, while mainstream media did not center it.
Figure XIV. Top Words Comparison for Coverage of Medical Mis/Distrust, Sample Matching Query
|Black doctors concerned about patient trust among African Americans||The Grio||3/26/2020|
|As California Reopens, Black Doctors Answer Nagging COVID Questions||Westside Story Newspaper||3/18/2021|
|Moderna Vaccine Co-Lead Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett Shares Her Journey||Essence||5/3/2021|
|Reckoning With a History of Medical Mistreatment, Many Blacks Wary of COVID-19 Vaccine||The Washington Informer||3/3/2021|
|Surgeon General: Black Americans’ Distrust In Vaccine Comes From History Of Medical Racism||Black Chronicle||12/20/2020|
|The anti-vaccine and anti-lockdown movements are converging, refusing to be ‘enslaved’||LA Times||4/20/2020|
|Anti-Abortion Faith Leaders Support Use of COVID-19 Vaccines||Newsmax||1/10/2021|
|‘It’s a great vaccine’: Donald Trump recommends supporters get COVID-19 vaccine as polls show hesitancy||USA Today||3/17/2021|
|Inside a Florida hospital, coronavirus cases wane as strained staff brace for a fall surge||Washington Post||10/7/2020|
|Johnson & Johnson Vaccinations Paused After Rare Clotting Cases Emerge||NY Times||4/13/2021|
Finally, health disparities were emphasized more by Black media. The word “disparities” showed up in the top words for Black media but not mainstream media in coverage of diabetes, hypertension, and HIV/AIDS, despite there being clear health inequities in those diseases based on race. “Disparities” was similarly uniquely prevalent in Black media in coverage of healthcare and medical mis/distrust.
Policing, Prisons and Mass Incarceration
The language that Black media used most frequently in coverage of this issue, language that did not appear in mainstream media’s coverage, evidences a frame beyond news events and reporting instead on systemic, historical legacies that persist into current injustices. For example, “justice” and “systemic” are uniquely in the top words in Black media’s coverage of police shootings. “Poverty” is uniquely prevalent in Black media’s coverage of mass incarceration, as are “Jim Crow,” and “lynching.”
Figure XV. Excerpt of an article run in Dallas Weekly and authored by NNPA covering mass incarceration and linking it with lynching and Jim Crow
In addition to a different frame in coverage of these topics, Black media uniquely connected coverage in other news topics to the issue of policing and incarceration. In coronavirus coverage, the terms “prison” or “prisons” were among the top 100 most frequently used words in Black media’s coverage of social distancing, testing, and comorbidities and risk factors. These terms and populations were not similarly emphasized in mainstream media’s pandemic coverage, despite the stark increased risk incarcerated individuals face during the pandemic.
Figure XVI. Article in The Carolina Peacemaker authored by Reverend Jesse Jackson, focusing on prisoners within social distancing coverage
Emphasis on Basic Needs
Across topic areas but particularly in coverage of health, Black media emphasized threats to or inadequacy of food, housing, and education, often grouping them together narratively. These keywords were uniquely prevalent when compared with mainstream media in the following diverse subtopics:
- Food: social distancing, shutdowns, hypertension, health coverage overall, non-COVID health coverage, and immigration mentions in political coverage
- Housing: mass incarceration, non-COVID health coverage, maternal health, and healthcare
- Education: vaccine hesitancy, essential and frontline workers, overall health coverage, non-COVID health coverage, HIV/AIDS, diabetes, hypertension, suicide, sickle cell disease, healthcare, maternal health, medical mis/distrust, mass incarceration, white supremacy/privilege, slavery/Juneteenth, Hispanic/Latinx, religion, and coverage to Africa and the diaspora
Black Media Provides Historical Context to Present Challenges
Black media not only connects news events across topics in reporting, but also connects present events to the historical record, keeping track of Black experience. The Tuskegee experiment is prominently featured in Black media’s coverage of medical mis/distrust. Jim Crow is emphasized in coverage of mass incarceration. Lynching is frequently included in coverage of slavery and Juneteenth. Even the word “history” itself is uniquely prevalent in Black media across a diversity of topics.
Figure XVII. Subtopics with “history” in top 100 words in Black media coverage, but not mainstream media coverage
One reporting practice in particular makes this quite clear: the inclusion of the names and stories of previous victims of racist or police violence in stories about new killings. Ahmaud Arbery’s name was among the top mentioned words in coverage of George Floyd. Trayvon Martin was among the top terms in coverage of Ahmaud Arbery. Mainstream media did not name these previous victims with comparable frequency.