The media has recently grappled with the unprecedented task of covering an election that, for the first time in US history, presents both a woman - Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) - and a black man - Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) - as viable candidates for the Presidency.
Although the historic race has generated curiosity and excitement, many say the media has eschewed these sentiments and, instead, focused on a message that underestimates Democratic voters, particularly African-American women. Much of the coverage leading up to the Democratic primary in South Carolina, held January 26, portrayed the race as a choice between "a black man" or a "white woman," without serious analysis of the issues that differentiated the two leading candidates, experts say.
"Because South Carolina has such a large African-American population, [race] became more of an issue," says Paula Poindexter, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin. "We've never had candidates who are a woman and an African-American man, and the news media is perhaps falling back on some of its historic and traditional methods of covering the news."
In particular, CNN posted a controversial news segment prior to the South Carolina primary asking African-American women whether they planned to vote for a candidate that shares their race or their gender. The story showed several African-American women gossiping at a neighborhood beauty salon, giving rise to charges of racism and sexism.
CNN eventually posted a follow-up piece explaining the backlash that the news outlet incurred, "within minutes" of publishing the story. Specifically, readers considered the piece offensive for implying black women would make their electoral decision on superficial grounds, with one reader calling the coverage "racist crap," CNN reported.
Poindexter points out that while there is certainly pride among African Americans and women in having a candidate with their background run for president, neither group is expected to blindly support a candidate simply due to shared identity.
"I think the national media has to simplify it to some extent," says Douglas Fisher, a journalism instructor at the University of South Carolina. "[But] it can go too far and be too simplistic."
Yet the controversy didn't stop other news outlets, such as the Houston Chronicle, from following with similar stories. The Chronicle piece was met with a barrage of comments that echoed the complaints directed at the CNN story. One reader questioned why white male voters were not being asked if they were voting with their race (Clinton) or their gender (Obama), or even both (John Edwards).
Even so, ultimately, the South Carolina primary was split along race and gender lines. It was reported that Obama won 79% of the black female vote, and 22% of white women, ultimately giving him 54% of the female vote, while Clinton secured 30%.
"The racial breakdown of the vote was important - it always has been for the Democratic primary," Fisher notes. "But South Carolina has become a much more complicated state these days. Most people don't vote one-dimensionally."
Some outlets did offer more complex analyses of black women voters with stories debunking the race/gender quagmire, but the fuller media still fell into its widely criticized pattern of reaching out to women and minorities only on matters related to race or gender.
"You basically have a media that thinks women and people of color can only talk about those issues," says Karl Frisch, director of media relations at Media Matters, a progressive media monitoring organization. "So obviously they are going to think they can only vote on those issues."
But did the coverage at least give African-American women a political voice - especially when the media so often overlooks them in favor of traditionally white voting blocs, like "soccer moms" and "NASCAR dads?"
"The argument could be - no," Frisch says. "Not when [the media is] assuming what the voice is."