The ‘Black Twitter’ beat raises questions of cultural competency and audience engagement for newsrooms

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In her memo to Los Angeles Times staff about new hires and coverage strategies designed to tap into diverse communities, managing editor S. Mitra Kalita included a tweet-worthy phrase about the hire of Dexter Thomas, a writer assigned to cover Black Twitter: it really is “so much more complicated than that.”

It’s a phrase that should give newsroom leaders pause before they reconfigure their social media and audience engagement strategies without considering the historical context and demographic trends that underpin such a decision. There’s no portal to Black Twitter. No special password. The phenomenon is people-centric, with highly active Black users tweeting about issues of concern in our communities — just like many of Twitter’s other 236 millions users.

Some online reaction to the Times memo reflected concerns of corporate media surveillance. Users are wary of news editors watching and collecting field notes to report on Black users who are otherwise “using the Internet the way it was intended to be used,” said Sydette Harry, a cultural commentator who tweets as @BlackAmazon.

“Is this going to be an area of consistent, dynamic change? Or is this going to be another sense of ‘we’re going to have an ethnography where we look at all the Negroes?'” she asked.

Newsroom leaders watching the development with designs on changing their social media reporting strategies should take note: Assigning a reporter to cover Black Twitter only works if that person is attuned to the history, culture and issues of race, gender, identity and power that makes the community what it is.

For his part, Thomas, a freelance writer and Ph.D. candidate in East Asian studies at Cornell University hired to cover the beat, is acutely aware of the challenge. It is, in part, untangling what anthropologist Clifford Geertz called “webs of significance” within this culturally linked network of communicators. But the reporting is designed to tease out news and connect with people sources outside traditional channels.

“I was skeptical about it because I don’t think that Black Twitter exists as a monolithic entity that everyone treats it as,” he said.

But the news media’s fascination has been building for years, as indicated by Choire Sicha’s 2009 musings about “What Were Black People Talking About on Twitter Last Night?” and Farhad Manjoo’s observations on “How Black People Use Twitter” in 2010. #BlackLivesMatter, created in 2012 by three Black feminists to draw attention to the killing of Trayvon Martin and so many more men, women and children memorialized via hashtag campaigns, has attracted greater visibility and better helped define some of the community’s boundaries.

Keen reporters have seized upon Black Twitter’s trending topics, from the banal to ones indicative of a growing social movement. Still, newsroom knowledge of Black Twitter’s community structure and values is limited, and it shows in previous attempts to report on the phenomenon, Thomas said.

“I’m used to people just scraping Black Twitter by typing in a hashtag, finding some interesting ones and pasting them into their story… most of the coverage has been ‘here’s what’s Black people said on Twitter yesterday.’ There’s no understanding of it. As far as mainstream media are concerned, it’s mostly police brutality activism and tweets about Beyonce.”

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His approach is different.

“There’s a lot of conversation to be had about how different populations are interacting,” Thomas said, noting media organizations’ oversight in covering diverse contributions to recent protests, such as photographers and archivists working to document social movements like #BlackLivesMatter.

A newsroom newcomer, Thomas is also interested in allowing the medium to tell the story.

“The things I put out might not be written. I started out podcasting. It could be through video. It could be through Vine. It could be to gather things: ‘Hey everyone, send me things and let’s do things together,'” he said.

The key element in this effort, and where the Times should be praised, is a focus on collaboration. While Thomas is working a beat, his intended approach is an acknowledgment of Black Twitter’s ability to interrupt mainstream media narratives — such as the shift from #CharlestonShooting to #CharlestonMassacre last month, or The New York Times’ August reflection on photos chosen to depict Michael Brown after his death, prompted by the hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown.

Still, users have reasons to be cautious, said Terrell Jermaine Starr, a senior editor for the online news service AlterNet.

“My major problem is that so many Black people are used to having their tweets, thoughts mined and plagiarized. And then you have this major publication using its resources to exclusively cover a single community,” he said.

Starr, who is tapped into the community, uses existing connections to report on timely issues.

“The problem is that Black Twitter for a lot of people is space where people can truly be themselves,” he explained.

Black Twitter daily discusses real-world problems that mainstream media is either oblivious to or outright ignoring. Occasionally, a creative hashtag arises as part of those discussions. Some are seized upon and written up without acknowledging their creators or their motivations. @FeministaJones’ #YouOKSis emerged in last year’s conversations about the street harassment women of color experience, a perspective missing from coverage about a popular video that focused on the issue. News organizations were slow to actually interview April Reign, who created #OscarsSoWhite in response to the 2015 awards show’s dearth of minority nominees.

The history underscores Harry’s concerns about how Black users will be treated.

“Are you going to be courteous and respectful of these sources the way you are of City Hall sources? There are going to be people who are going to be gloriously amused that I’m even asking that question.

“But if you’re talking about Black Twitter and Black Tumblr and the hashtags that have come up, that’s been Black women. That’s been women of color, that’s been indigenous women. And most often that has been women who have not been outright attacked, stalked and vilified for their observations, they’ve been ignored.”

These incidents, she said, puts Black Twitter on the defensive, leading users to question the motives of organizations such as the Times and Vox, which recently advertised for reporters to cover separate race and gender beats.

“Media has been taking better notice of marginalized communities. Even if it’s for profit or the production of news, they’re taking interest,” she said. “But are they also announcing that they’re going to improve diversity in their newsrooms?”

The Times, like most newspapers participating in the American Society of News Editors newsroom census, is woefully deficient of people of color, particularly Black and Hispanic journalists, working in its newsroom. With ASNE’s goal of community parity by 2025, the Times has a ways to go with 2.9 percent and 7.7 percent of its staff identifying as Black or Hispanic in a physical coverage area where Blacks and Hispanics respectively make up 9.8 and 47.7 percent of the population.

Those figures bolster questions over whether a beat focusing on a single demographic’s social-media presence is an exercise in anthropology or a unique approach to engagement.

While social media users from all corners watch to see how the Times’ strategy plays out, other newsrooms can consider building connections with diverse online communities on social media platforms by listening, researching and directly contacting users for interviews rather than copying and pasting their online contributions. Doing so will help reporters learning the difference between a trend and a theme and filter through perceived “outrage” to identify the historical and contemporary sources of inequality that trigger vocal response to injustice.

Newsroom executives who want to follow the Times’ lead should give intrepid, in-touch individuals —perhaps some who are outside journalism’s traditional talent pipelines — room to explore the intersectional issues discussed by people of color via social media.

And newsrooms that have yet to meet their commitment to hiring, training and retaining minority journalists must acknowledge the caveat that links concerns about the Times’ new venture: What media elites call “exploration” of diverse groups online can be justifiably characterized as exploitation by members of the communities we’ve failed to connect with and cover for so long.

Meredith D. Clark is an assistant professor of digital and print news in the Mayborn School of Journalism at the University of North Texas. Her 2014 dissertation on Black Twitter was awarded the AEJMC Mass Communication & Society Division’s Dissertation of the Year.