Did news coverage of Martin Luther King Jr. Day miss the point?

By Richard Lee

A number of years ago, I wrote a column about the media’s coverage of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The point of the column was that most of the news stories involved covering a ceremony or speech. Few if any of the reports delved into broader topics, such as Dr. King’s impact on current rate relations.

Since St. Bonaventure University, where I teach, began its spring semester on the day after Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I thought it would be interesting to revisit the type of coverage the holiday receives, so I asked each student in my Media and Democracy to find a news story about Martin Luther King Jr. Day and then write a few sentences describing the article.

In looking at the stories they found, I did see some of the more in-depth reports that were lacking when I wrote my column, but most of the articles (16 out of 23) were about ceremonies and speeches.

All of those stories were important and relevant, but the topics underscored the impact that economic issues have news coverage. For example, if a news organization sends a reporter to a ceremony or speech, it’s a quick and inexpensive way to cover Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The reporter is there for an hour or two, writes the story and then is available for another assignment.

On the other hand, to produce a long, in-depth report on Dr. King and race relations – a story that could be more valuable than covering a ceremony — takes time and maybe more than one reporter. It also may require additional resources. 

Faced with the choice of a quick and easy story versus one that could tie up reporters for several days or longer, the best decision – from an economic perspective – is to cover a ceremony. But from a journalism perspective, the best decision is to do a story that really unpacks Dr. King’s legacy and how it relates to race relations today.

Richard Lee, executive director of the Jandoli Institute, is a professor in the Jandoli School of Communication at St. Bonaventure University. He covered politics and government as a reporter and later served as Deputy Director of Communication for two New Jersey governors.

Categories: Jandoli Institute, Media, Politics

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