How social media can facilitate difficult conversations about race

A recent, much-buzzed-about trend story by Associated Press reporter Jesse Washington started with a statistic — 72 percent of black children are born to unwed mothers — and incorporated a Twitter debate.

Washington, AP’s national writer on race and ethnicity, said he had been wanting to write about the statistic for a while. Then he learned that a newly created “No Wedding No Womb” hashtag (#NWNW) drew 110,000 users and vehement diatribes within weeks.

“I knew I had my hook,” he said in an e-mail interview.

Washington’s example illustrates the power of social media to lend context and perspective to issues of race and identity, particularly ones that can be controversial. In fact, he advises reporters to use the Twitter search function for any story in which it’s important to gauge what people are saying about a specific topic.

I’d go one step further and say that the “No Wedding No Womb” debate gave Washington’s story fresh perspectives from the black community. It gave voice (or voices) to those who are most investment in that statistic. So a story that could have reinforced negative stereotypes became a way to show how blacks themselves are not monolithic on ways to address the problem.

In fact, race is such a difficult issue to talk about that social media has become a unique outlet for the conversation that happens after the official or polite conversation.

Witness Kanye West’s Tweets about Matt Lauer after the rapper apologized on the “Today” show for his comments about President George W. Bush during Hurricane Katrina. Or Facebook discussions like the one posted on the Latino-themed page Cuéntame about U.S. Senate candidate Sharron Angle’s remark that Hispanics “look a little Asian to me.”

Often, creative takes on controversial news circulate on social media, such as “Muslims Wearing Things,” a satirical site that plays on journalist Juan Williams’ comments about “Muslim garb” that led to his much-publicized firing from National Public Radio.

While mainstream reporters often struggle to come up with original quotes for “react” stories, a site like “Muslims Wearing Things” — complete with T-shirts for sale labeled “Muslim garb” — gives a whole new meaning to the idea of reaction and debate.

Amy Eisman, my colleague from American University School of Communication who heads up the weekend Interactive Journalism graduate program, said mainstream reporters need to keep their eyes on two balls when following controversies like these.

“There are two universes that snap into place,” she said. “One is the new-normal, the 24-hour-cable-talkfest-blogosphere-radio-yakathon. The other is the newer-normal, the Twitter and social media universe that moves pieces of information at lightning speed.”

The coexistence of these two worlds means that information is both accelerated and amplified, she said. “They bring to the table voices traditionally not heard from if — and this is a big if — one’s social network shares diverse points of view.”

Washington shared some tips for mainstream reporters using social media to research and write about race issues:

  • Engage. If you post regularly to Twitter and Facebook, people interested in these topics will find you, and you will find them. If you don’t post, you’ll miss out on a lot of good connections and leads.
  • Establish a Facebook page just for work. That will encourage people with a professional interest in your work to return, and to engage in discussion. They’re probably not interested in your vacation.
  • Moderate your discussions. Abusive and off-topic comments discourage worthwhile conversations. Respectfully urge people to stick to the topic and not to be abusive, by private message if needed. Delete comments if absolutely necessary.
  • Follow and friend people with a wide variety of opinions and viewpoints, not just those who share your perspective.
  • Put your Facebook and Twitter addresses in your e-mail signature.

Eisman added a couple more general tips and best practices for reporting with social media:

  • Think of Twitter as a live link library, where you can find articles and multimedia from all sides of an issue. And follow trending topics on Twitter, which you can change by modifying the link. (I also like to use Tweetgrid to follow multiple topics at once.)
  • Look for Facebook groups that form around controversies or causes, often immediately. An overlooked form of social media is Wikipedia, where the online “discussions” in the form of a wiki can be more civil than those happening elsewhere on the Web. The Wikipedia page about the arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr. is a good example.
  • Reporting this way is no different than anything else –  find, report and verify. Check the About Us of a site, particularly the board members and funders. Credibility matters.

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