How *not* to report on Black Twitter

Black people are amazing.

Since the first day our feet hit the shores of the American coastline, we’ve influenced nearly every facet of the country’s culture. It’s no wonder then that Black Twitter continues to fascinate others. We know what’s “da bomb,” as some have pointed out.

News articles written about Black Twitter usually fall into three categories:

1. Black Twitter said funny things about [pop culture moment]!
2. Black Twitter just roasted [celebrity/hashtag]!
3. Black Twitter is angry about [social justice issue]!

All three points hark back to the contemptible legacy of how Black people in America are presented in the media. For decades, African Americans have been expected to shuck and jive for the entertainment of others. This subconscious line of thinking is epitomized in a Vanderbilt University study that found that Black academics are expected to entertain when presenting academic research. A nation raised on Sambo-isms and Stepin Fetchit has yet to shake off this legacy.

To the second and third points, Black Twitter is often depicted as an angry mob ready to pounce. This characterization only furthers the stereotype that Black people are violent and worthy of derision.

This reductive presentation of Black Twitter is depressingly prevalent. It’s for this reason that I created “Today in #BlackTwitter,” a daily digest and Twitter account that algorithmically highlights trending conversations in the user group. The results of its existence prove what Black Twitter already knows — the majority of the online conversations it has are more nuanced and multivariate than reporting on the group suggests.

On any given day, about half of the links, hashtags and @accounts mentioned among Black Twitter users discuss social justice issues, including diversity and police brutality. A quarter are related to entertainment and television (and, ahem, not just hip-hop and #Scandal).

The funny hashtags and clapbacks like #ThanksgivingWithBlackFamilies and #CNNbelike are actually few and far between. On average, these hashtags trend nationally three or four times a week. Therefore, it’s a poor choice to characterize Black Twitter by these humorous moments. It’s also telling of a reporter’s understanding of Black Twitter if they use these topics to explain Black Twitter to their audience.

To this point, journalists should not be caught off guard when Black Twitter (rightfully) corrects them about the misrepresentation of the user group or Black culture in general.

The number of African Americans on Twitter is staggering. The Pew Research Center estimates that 28% of African-American internet users are on the platform. However, just because someone is Black and on Twitter does not make them a part of Black Twitter. Despite my work in the area, even I don’t label myself as such because my tweets more often than not differ from the daily discussion topics.

Statistically, stories from The Washington Post, The Root, BuzzFeed, NBC and The New York Daily News are the most shared within the movers and shakers in Black Twitter. The reason for this is simple: they employ journalists who either emerged from the Black Twitter network and/or regularly report on this influential area of social media. The result is mutually beneficial for both parties. Black Twitter reads more on the issues they care about and the publications get eyeballs on their site and reporting. (More findings here)

Newsrooms who do not have diverse staffs often rely on one of the laziest forms of journalism: embedding a bunch of tweets at the end of an article without context. This questionable practice is not just limited to Black Twitter. Google “Twitter Reacts to…” and you will be delivered scores of articles with the headline. The indiscriminate copying and pasting of Black voices does not serve the reader in a meaningful way.

Finding tweets with the most engagement is easy. A quick scan of Twitter’s search function presents the top tweets by default. There’s also TweetDeck, which makes finding the most salient tweets on any subject as easy as setting up a filter or two.

As much as possible, avoid parachute journalism — jumping into a community with no understanding of how it operates and no intention of sticking around past the publication for your story. This established concept is why reporters with dedicated beats are the ones most likely to flourish. The more entrenched in a community you are, the better your reporting and the audience’s understanding of the issues.

Black Twitter is cool as hell, that’s for sure. But take a second to think about your motivation for writing about it. Here are some rules for the road:

· Don’t trivialize the importance of Black Twitter
· Don’t create content that intentionally antagonizes Black Twitter
· Avoid copying and pasting a long list of random tweets
· Hire more Black people in your newsroom