News organizations should use social media to identify diverse voices

When’s the last time your newsroom sat face-to-face with readers and carefully considered their criticisms?

Communication technology has extended the gap between news workers and audiences so that we’re mostly through channels we (media elites) control: letters to the editor, online comments, phone calls that can go ignored and voicemails that can vaporize at the push of a button.

Social media, however, has made it a little harder to ignore the din of readers who take umbrage with outlets’ coverage. Web managers can still ignore the Facebook comments we solicited as a means of “engaging” with readers; blocking or muting a Twitter account with an egg as an avatar is a justifiable act of protection.

And then there’s the waste of resources that is simply providing a response to key public criticism. We live in a world where insight is available from thousands of readers at any given time, yet ignore them for lack of strategy in dealing with social media “outrage.”

My test case is The New York Times’ response to its “Angry Black Woman” story published last year. I recounted the tale, and offered up a few suggestions, during the Online News Association’s convention last month in Los Angeles.

I was using the Times’ app last fall when I spied a story about Shonda Rhimes (creator of “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Scandal,” and “How to Get Away with Murder”) and her reign in primetime television. The culture article regarded Rhimes’ meteoric rise with curiosity and incredulity, regarding Academy-Award nominated actress Viola Davis as a star who is “less classically beautiful” than some of her counterparts.

Reading those lines felt like being spit upon by my trusted information source.

Within hours, the article was being circulated on Twitter as the hashtag #LessClassicallyBeautiful was used to draw attention to the Eurocentric standards of beauty imposed on women of color.

Margaret Sullivan, the Times’ public editor, wrote about the fallout:

In more than two years as public editor at The Times, I’ve encountered very few subjects that have aroused as much passion and reaction as an Arts & Leisure article about the TV producer Shonda Rhimes and the stereotype of the "Angry Black Woman" the story leaned on.

Sullivan went on to discuss the coverage as an issue of “diversity and strong editing,” while Executive Editor Dean Baquet acknowledged the culture desk’s lack of Black writers and editors while shifting blame to a shrinking newsroom.

The response fell short in a few places: though it used the voices of readers to illustrate the problem, it still presented two sides of an issue rather than working through the complexities that each side mentioned in order to provide better understanding of how to improve coverage. This back-and-forth continues to play out in media mea culpas, but never really provides a remedy for acting on audience suggestions. It’s simply a salve on a chronically irritated wound: we messed up, we’re sorry, we’re moving on.

It would be easy for the Times — or any news outlet facing a similar money crunch — to leave the glaring need for improvement in diversity and culturally competent coverage there. We don’t have the money, we can’t address this problem, it’s tertiary to staying financially afloat and giving our readers quality coverage.

Diversifying the newsroom is critical in addressing both of those problems. The buying power of ethnic audiences continues to grow, alongside the demographic numbers of ever-browning America. Using social media to engage with “the outrage machine,” rather than writing off readers who may not be subscribers, is one of several ways newsrooms can begin to address problems with problematic coverage.

Black and Hispanic audiences remain critical of mainstream media, a stance that should remind organizations to further develop their diversity and audience engagement strategies if they want to retain and build audiences as “minority” groups reach majority status in the new America.

They can do so by actively listening in to discussions about their coverage, joining the conversation, and even elevating voices on their main platforms.

A “response” from an outlet is essential when news outlets fail the audience by providing culturally insensitive reporting in place of solid journalism. But we have “meaningful conversation” fatigue over implicit and explicit bias in media. What audience needs is a way to move beyond journalism’s fourth wall and actually participate in content creation.

Social media offers those opportunities.

-- A targeted Twitter analysis of commentary about a particularly harmful piece will likely turn up a few voices that outlets can trust to provide insight on the historical, cultural and economic ramifications of bad coverage. It’s a delicate process, as the audience isn’t responsible for doing the newsroom’s work in providing culturally sensitive coverage, and yet some of the best experts out there are people who never aspire to work in the newsroom.

-- Online chats that bring together readers, reporters and editors are one means of engaging diverse voices and backing them with the power of the outlet’s platform.

-- Hiring people on as community board members, freelancers and contributors is another means of mitigating the diversity gap in lean times.

Make no mistake, there is no shortcut to addressing the diversity imperative in America’s newsrooms. Using social media as a means to identify diverse voices and further engage readers beyond the screen and the page is merely making meaningful use of an outlet’s social-media channels. The labor of diversity work isn’t the audience’s burden; that belongs to the outlet. Using social media to co-develop better coverage is just one part of a shared solution.

Media is no longer a one-to-many system in which the traditional approach to tackling issues of diversity will work. The voices of the masses now ring as loudly as the headlines; they cannot be ignored. And they shouldn’t be. Instead, it’s time we listen closely, elevate, and challenge ourselves to amplify readers’ voices rather than give a simple response or ignore them altogether. We have the tools to do it. What we lack is the will.

  • Meredith D. Clark, Ph.D.

    Meredith Clark is an assistant professor at the Mayborn School of Journalism at the University of North Texas and a monthly columnist for Poynter. You can find her on Twitter at @meredithclark.


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