Media, the ‘Obama Effect,’ and racial prejudice


The 2008 election of Barack Obama as the 44th president of the United States was a revolutionary moment in American history. Two hundred and twenty-one years after the U.S. Constitution declared African Americans only three-fifths of a person, and 151 years after the U.S. Supreme Court deemed blacks “beings of an inferior order,” (Dred Scott v. Sanford) the United States elected its first African-American president in a landslide.


White House/Pete Souza

A sizable portion of research on the 2008 election has focused on the importance of race in the campaign, and how white racial prejudice influenced voter choice. But Seth K. Goldman, the George Gerbner Postdoctoral Fellow at the Annenberg School for Communication, says scholars have largely overlooked the fact that the presidential contest featured months of incessant coverage of Obama and his family that challenged the negative stereotypes many associate with African Americans.

Long interested in media’s impact on an individual’s level of racial prejudice, Goldman used data from the 2008 National Annenberg Election Study to investigate whether mass exposure of a candidate on television can cause a change in racial attitudes. He found that the heavy television coverage of Obama during the presidential campaign caused a drop in white racial prejudice. His findings were reported in his dissertation, “Effects of the 2008 Obama Presidential Campaign on White Racial Prejudice.”

Goldman’s study included a panel of 2,636 whites who were asked about the sources from which they heard about the presidential campaign. Those who answered “television” were then asked which programs they watched regularly.

Survey questions also indirectly assessed the extent to which whites had “ingroup favoritism,” meaning more favorable attitudes toward whites than blacks. White respondents rated whites and blacks on three scales, ranging from “hardworking to lazy,” “intelligent to unintelligent,” and “trustworthy to untrustworthy.”

The same people were surveyed during three waves: the first starting on July 17, 2008, the second from Aug. 29-Nov. 4, and the third from Nov. 5-Jan. 31, 2009. Their views were then compared to an earlier point in time.

The study relied on responses to the 49 programs that appeared in all three waves, such as morning and nightly news programs on the major broadcast networks, “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer,” Fox News, “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno,” “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” “60 Minutes,” “The O’Reilly Factor,” “Ellen,” “Frontline,” “Hannity’s America,” “Hardball with Chris Matthews,” “Meet the Press,” “Oprah,” “The View,” and “Anderson Cooper 360.”

Goldman found that little change occurred in July and August of 2008. But a decline in prejudice began in mid-September, and continued through the end of the campaign and Obama’s inauguration.

“After the election, I saw that there was this very clear and downward trend in racial prejudice during the campaign,” Goldman says.

In the period between July 2008 and January 2009, Goldman found that the “Obama Effect” reduced racial prejudice by a rate that was at least five times faster than the previous two decades.

Goldman’s theory is that the massive inundation of images of Obama as a decent, eloquent, hardworking family man—even in the conservative media—changed which African Americans whites considered to be an “exemplar,” an academic term meaning the individual people picture when they think about African Americans. When study respondents were answering questions about African Americans, Obama was the first black person who came to mind, countering the stereotype of blacks as lazy, violent criminals.

Unexpectedly, Goldman found that the biggest decline in prejudice occurred among supporters of John McCain, the Republican nominee, conservatives, and Republicans in general.

Although Republicans resisted Obama’s politics, Goldman says Obama countered their expectations of African Americans far more so than among liberals, who had more positive preexisting images of blacks.

Goldman says his research is the first study to assess the impact of exposure to Obama on individual-level changes in prejudice using nationally representative panel data collected during the campaign.

[The Obama Effect] still had a significant and substantial effect in the context of the fact that no one thinks that prejudice or stereotypes change very quickly.”

He says the results were surprising because changes in racial attitudes are usually measured “in broad brushes across decades, and often there’s no change at all.” The change in racial prejudice that occurred during the 2008 campaign materialized faster during the six-month period surveyed than it had during any other six-month period over the past 20 years.

“There’s not any claim here that prejudice has been erased off the planet,” Goldman says. “But [the Obama Effect] still had a significant and substantial effect in the context of the fact that no one thinks that prejudice or stereotypes change very quickly.”

Originally published on October 11, 2012