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Article • 06/02/2024

How Racial Equality Plays Out in The Media Beyond Black History Month

Black individuals are greeted by the systemic inequalities that will come to shape the rest of their lives as soon as they are born. These disparities endure throughout their lives, resulting in limited educational opportunities, less accumulated wealth, increased debt, and shorter lifespans. Black History Month, as envisioned by its architect, Carter G. Woodson, serves not only as a celebration of Black achievements but also as a recognition of how these disparities extend into every facet of black people’s lives and the ongoing struggle for authentic engagement with Black history.

Woodson strategically anchored Negro History Week in February to pay homage to the enduring legacies of Lincoln and Douglass. By the 1940s, certain communities had already evolved from Negro History Week to Negro History Month. The 1960s, marked by the surging American civil rights movement and heightened Black consciousness, witnessed the widespread transition from Negro History Week to Black History Month in numerous places. In 1976, the organization Woodson founded, later renamed the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, played a pivotal role in formally institutionalizing February as Black History Month.

Conversations about racism and racial equality remain as relevant today as they were then, even though the backdrop to discussions about racial equality and civil rights has changed dramatically.  Racism, of course, is also still alive and well, evident in the substantial 2,251,982 mentions of the issue in news media throughout 2023. Worldwide, this means that an average of 6170 news articles mentioning the topic were published everyday. More than half of those (or 3392 per day) came from the United States. 

Negro History Week, a product of its era, took on a life of its own beyond Woodson’s and the Association’s control. By the 1930s, Woodson, witnessing a rush by publishing houses to release books on black topics, voiced concerns about opportunistic individuals, both black and white, exploiting the burgeoning interest in black history. Woodson’s apprehensions regarding the exploitation of Black History Month for personal agendas resonate today, taking a form perhaps more familiar under the label of “performative activism.” 

In February 2023, companies across diverse industries responded to the call to commemorate Black History Month, leading to a notable increase in media coverage on racial equality. However, the tenor of this increase—whether positive or negative—hinged significantly on each company’s approach. Our analysis, focused on a subset of companies from the Signal AI 500 ranking in the entertainment and tech sectors, highlights the tech sector’s notable adeptness in navigating Black History Month while addressing racial equality.

Examining the three companies with the least negative coverage—Uber, Amazon, and Microsoft—we observe a shared commitment to moving beyond verbal expressions of support. Uber actively translated support into action by funding Black-owned restaurants. Amazon and Microsoft garnered positive coverage by spotlighting black retailers, authors, companies, and leaders on their platforms.

Disney encountered political polarization, drawing negative coverage from both the left and right. Accusations ranged from pushing a perceived woke agenda to allegations of racism, underscoring the complexities and challenges companies face in navigating discussions around racial equality. In the tech sector, Google garnered the highest percentage of negative coverage as it found itself immersed in a racial pay discrimination suit, facing allegations that it paid its minority employees less than their white counterparts.

Politicians also heeded the call to celebrate Black History Month, with a growing number of them taking up to social media to commemorate Black History Month. 

Unsurprisingly, even in discussions surrounding racism and racial equality white voices outnumber black voices. This asymmetry is particularly notable in the prominence of political leaders, who tend to dominate conversations on these critical issues throughout the year, especially in the United States.

Note: Share of voice (SOV) is calculated based on the sum of the top 20 most frequently mentioned organizations/people for the topic of racial equality.

These instances are not isolated but emblematic of a social landscape that falls short in reflecting the diversity of the population it aims to guide and represent, and underscores the ongoing challenges in achieving equitable discourse and amplifying marginalized perspectives.

In 2020, after the tragic murder of George Floyd, our analysis of the resulting news coverage indicated that he was mentioned in around 2 million articles within the two weeks following his death. Slightly over half of these articles explicitly linked his death to issues of racism or police brutality. The reporting on his murder exhibited significant variations across political lines, revealing divergent narratives and perspectives surrounding this pivotal event.

Less than four years later, by the end of 2023, the number of news articles mentioning George Floyd dropped to approximately 686,000. However, this nearly fourfold reduction did not correlate with a decrease in the number of people of color affected by police brutality. In 2023, they still constituted the largest portion of unarmed individuals killed by police.

The start of this year’s Black History Month, centered on the theme “African Americans and the Arts,” coincides with the conclusion of the Emmy Awards ceremony. The media has lauded this year’s ceremony for pushing the bar on DE&I, with 10 Black artists clinching trophies at the Emmys. This marks a significant stride forward from 2021 when, despite making up 44% of the nominees, Black actors did not receive any awards.

Nonetheless, looking at media coverage of the event the bias remains evident. Black actors were mentioned 10% less than their white counterparts, despite breaking records in the number of wins and nominations. As the week of the event unfolded, the gap widened, with news coverage favoring white actors by nearly 40%. 

As a wellspring of inspiration and empowerment, the media holds a pivotal role in amplifying Black achievements across the arts and beyond throughout the year. Genuine and respectful action, prioritizing the needs of Black consumers and employees, stands as the most effective approach. From the newsroom to the boardroom, fostering awareness and authentic allyship are essential catalysts for change, essential for dismantling the unfair biases that hinder progress. Non-performative allyship involves elevating Black individuals into leadership and diverse roles within corporations and extending concern for racial equality beyond the confines of Black History Month.

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