University of Virginia professor talks Black Twitter, journalism at speaker series event

Thursday, February 7, 2019 - 8:53pm

Meredith Clark, former journalist and current assistant professor at the University of Virginia, gives a talk named "Black Women Tried to Tell Ya'll: Race, Representation and Self-Preservation through Digital Counter-Narratives" Thursday in North Quad.

Meredith Clark, former journalist and current assistant professor at the University of Virginia, gives a talk named "Black Women Tried to Tell Ya'll: Race, Representation and Self-Preservation through Digital Counter-Narratives" Thursday in North Quad. Buy this photo
Danyel Tharakan/Daily

Meredith Clark, assistant professor of media studies at the University of Virginia, spoke to about 30 students and faculty in North Quad on Thursday afternoon as part of the Communication and Media Speaker Series, hosted by the University of Michigan Communication Studies department.

In her talk, titled “Black Women Tried to Tell Y’all,” Clark discussed participation and theorization in online spaces and the impacts of longstanding journalism models on communities of color. Clark said her goal is to change the journalism industry to better represent people of color.

“Ultimately, my goal is to develop research applications for actual journalists to practice,” Clark said. “I am interested in disrupting the models of journalism we have used for so long that have continued to shut people of color out of news narratives.”

Clark is a former journalist whose research focuses on the intersections of race, media and power. Her dissertation on “Black Twitter” landed her on The Root 100, the news website’s list of the most prominent African Americans in the country, in 2015. Clark also contributes to Poynter’s diversity column and has had research published in academic journals.

Clark said she grounds her work in Black feminist thought, a ground-theory framework focused on ideas produced by Black women and a collection of experiences. She discussed the key features of this thought framework and its social justice roots.

She said she was inspired to start her research after reading a Slate article titled “How Black People Use Twitter.” Clark said she was specifically interested in how Black-lived experiences are portrayed.

“As a copy editor — they used to have copy editors working at news outlets — you are trained to come up with headlines: phrases that catch peoples’ attention, that tell them concisely what the story is about,” Clark said. “So, when I pull up this story on Slate magazine, frankly I was alarmed. Someone was making such broad generalizations about what Blacks are doing on the internet.”

Clark said  in 2013, people liked how Twitter was a public platform but not monitored by family. With this in mind, she studied Twitter through three grouping mechanisms: personal communities, neighborhoods and meta-networks.

She did six years of work, in addition to extra analysis and interviews. Using her work, she said she hopes to be able to reshape journalism models to be more inclusive of representation.

“I’m interested in developing a critical-cultural approach to journalism studies that is informed by the people who are impacted by the journalism directly,” Clark said. “I think of it this way: a journalistic approach to storytelling that intentionally considers the structural oppressions inherent to mainstream news media coverage of disempowered groups.”

Clark said her digital research work ties into newsroom work and stressed the importance of the relationship between social media communities and mainstream news. She also touched on the Black digital resistance, her childhood and her experiences in the newsroom.

Communications associate professor Sonya Dal Cin, who took part in organizing the event, said the department picks speakers to present throughout the year through gauging nominations from students and faculty. She said it is important to host speakers from other institutions to bring new ideas into the community.

“In any academic department, one of the things that keeps us innovated, keeps us thinking about important questions that matter to the world is to have scholars from other institutions with different perspectives than what is represented on our own faculty come to present their work,” Dal Cin said. “We have people from outside come to us. We are often asked to go to other universities and present the work that’s being done here at Michigan there. It’s the academic exchange of ideas that is really the foundation of a university to begin with.”

Clark shared her experience of moving to Charlottesville on Aug. 13, 2017, just two days after a woman was run over during an anti-“alt-right” protest. She said when she was moving in, she saw #BlackLivesMatter signs all around the city, which she said exemplified the impact of online activity in real-world situations.

According to Clark, while Black Twitter includes activism, like #IfTheyGunMeDown, it isn’t limited to solely social justice themes. She also said Black Twitter uses hashtags for jokes, specifically mentioning #CNNBeLike, #AskRachel, #BeyonceAlwaysOnBeat and #ThanksgivingWithBlackFamilies as a few examples.

LSA freshman Charlotte Beaudoin told The Daily after the event that she attended the talk to learn about diversity issues. It was her first time learning about Black Twitter, and Beaudoin said she found it engaging to learn about minority participation in online communities.

“I honestly didn’t even realize that there was this whole other community on Twitter,” she said. “It was kind of interesting to find out there are these niches on Twitter.”

Clark said her research and work going forward will be focused on advocating for the overarching values she’s developed throughout her research. First, she said journalists should be held accountable, which she described as accepting responsibility for their mistakes. She also said journalists should strive for authenticity, which she described as presenting yourself the same online as in person and using historical context in articles, noting The Ferguson Syllabus as a prime example of how journalists from the outside can understand communities.

She then emphasized giving credit to Black women who participate in social spaces, noting the potential of Black Twitter to hold mainstream media organizations accountable.

“Black Twitter allows ordinary — that is, people outside the media elite — to serve as Black gatekeepers, for news and information needs a plurality of Black American experiences,” Clark said. “When I think about ‘Black Women Tried to Tell Y’all,’ this is where I end: giving Black women credit for the knowledge production they do and did in digital spaces, recognizing that it is made transparent through a series of practices they engage in as part of their resistance efforts and giving Black women the sense of agency that they deserve from these spaces for contributing to our understanding of Black-lived experiences — not as deviant, but as similar to our very own.”