Visualizing How the New York Times Covers Black Writers

New York Times Cover

Our article “How the ‘New York Times’ Covers Black Writers” (Public Books, October 2022) uses data to consider the veracity of the idea that only “only one” or a few Black writers are elevated at any one time by white publishing outlets.

This data story provides an overview of that article and its key findings.

Only select Black writers—all born before 1950—appeared in more than 1,000 articles. Fewer than 20 writers from our list of 500 appeared in more than 500 articles.

Toni Morrison stands out in comparison to several members of her generational cohort who began publishing novels in the 1960s and 1970s. None of them—Toni Cade Bambara, Octavia Butler, Samuel R. Delany, Ernest Gaines, Charles Johnson, Gayl Jones, Paule Marshall, James Alan McPherson, Louise Meriwether, Gloria Naylor, Ishmael Reed, Fran Ross, John Edgar Wideman, and John A. Williams—comes close to appearing in as many articles as Morrison in the Times over the last five decades.

Among Toni Morrison’s Black women contemporaries, Alice Walker comes the closest to appearing in as many articles in the Times. During the 1980s, the publication of The Color Purple (1982) and the 1985 film adaptation of the novel ensured that Walker was cited in more articles than Morrison for a few years.

Even so, Walker’s closeness is only momentary, as our line graph indicates. But in retrospect, those years were anomalies. In every decade since the 1970s, the Times has cited Morrison in more total articles than Walker and every other Black writer except Baldwin.

While the coverage of Morrison far outpaces that of her Black writer peers, that is not the case in comparison with white writers, especially in the Books section of the Times. Even though John Updike, Philip Roth, and Norman Mailer have been cited in more articles than Morrison since 1970, she has been referenced in more articles overall than her generational cohort of women, such as Joyce Carol Oates, Joan Didion, Margaret Atwood, and Susan Sontag.

A similar result occurs with Zadie Smith’s, Colson Whitehead’s, and Ta-nehisi Coates’s multiracial generational cohort. In the Books section of the Times, Smith and Whitehead are the only Black novelists in league with white contemporaries such as David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen, Jonathan Lethem, Hilary Mantel, George Saunders, and Jennifer Egan.

Colson Whitehead and Ta-Nehisi Coates are outliers among their generational cohort of Black men writers. The bulk of coverage on Coates concentrates on his nonfiction, but he is very much an artistic writer who has produced comic books and a novel.

Coates is not widely cited as a fiction writer, even though he has published a novel. There’s no question that Whitehead has been more productive than many of his peers, releasing eight novels and two creative nonfiction works since 1999.

When media outlets choose favored Black writers, abundant references to those figures persist for extended periods. Baldwin and Morrison have been two of the most cited Black writers for the last 50 years. For the last decade, Coates, Smith, and Whitehead have consistently been the most frequently referenced contemporary Black writers. We predict that those three will remain among the most cited in the Times for at least the next decade.

Click to read “How the ‘New York Times’ Covers Black Writers”