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Beacon blog: The danger of generalizations

Last week, Slate published an article, "How Blacks Use Twitter: The latest research on race and microblogging."  Now, I'll admit that I can't tell you why, but my general sense of Slate is that it's intelligent, thoughtful, edgy. So when I clicked through to the article I expected something, well, intelligent, thoughtful and edgy.

One and a half out of three ain't bad. I found a fascinating piece that was only edgy in its blatant -- yet blind -- wielding of sweeping generalizations.

If you have time, you should click over and read the article before finishing this post. I say that because my reaction to the article and my concern about what it represents are all about context -- not just the context of the article itself, but the context of where people are coming from in discussions like these. 

If you don't have time, I'll summarize: "How Blacks Use Twitter: The latest research on race and microblogging" is accompanied by an illustration of the Twitter logo -- a bird, usually blue, but in this case brown, wearing an oversize ball cap and holding a smartphone.

The piece begins by outlining a trend the author noticed on Twitter in which "nearly everyone" participating appears to be black. In essence, the article is about a particular type of tag on Twitter and the method by which that tag rises to the top of its "trending" list. The author talks about how "fascinating" this is in light of the fact that this "awesome" phenomenon has "long puzzled nonblack observers" and gives the trend the name "blacktags." In paragraph six, he mentions -- as an aside -- that this phenomenon is actually just black teenagers. The following six paragraphs return to analyzing in terms of "black user," "black people" and "black" behavior.

As someone who has made communication my profession, I find that this dichotomy between the limited use and the general label gives an example of the power of words and the importance of context. The last half of the article even takes great pains to point out how most of the methods used to come to the title's conclusion hold no water. However, in my opinion -- and that of numerous bloggers and black Twitter users who took the article's author to task -- the headline, the illustration and the structure of the piece boil down to an article full of sweeping generalizations. "Ooooh! Look how different these people are!" (There's no article on how white or Asian people -- not to mention teens -- use Twitter; and nowhere in the article was there a comparison to any other specific demographic or social group.)

Now, admittedly, I'm getting into the weeds on this when really the mere existence of the article has prompted most of those who are reacting to react: A) It's 2010 and we're still writing pieces like these; B) this piece appears in a publication that should be beyond a piece like this; and C) most in the majority don't even see this piece as problematic. (In fact, within 24 hours an advertising trade blogger picked up the "findings" and passed them along as fact, nestled between a post about McDonald's dominating the breakfast wars and another about Macy's earnings.)

Why do things like this matter? Everyone uses stereotypes. I believe it is possible to use them regularly while simultaneously understanding that they often hold no water -- but reality happens somewhere in the middle.

Perpetuating sweeping generalizations and ignoring nuances and perspective are dangerous. Such things lead to fear, anger and widening social divides. In my mind, one of the major roles of journalism, reporting, research and information in general is to help people navigate those divides -- to foster discussion and give people the opportunity to widen their horizons. (Perhaps this is where I set myself up for disappointment.)

Is a misconception about how blacks use Twitter a big deal? Not really. It's the framing of the article and the not naming of the generalizations as such that indicate a slippery slope. If we can't see them and name them there, where else are we ignoring the nuances?

Take, for example, America's war on drugs. A 2008 national survey by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration showed a substance dependence or abuse rate of 8.8 percent for blacks, 9 percent for whites and 9.5 percent for Hispanics. Yet, the general narrative is that poor black males are those most engaged in the use and abuse of drugs. So much so that it's front-page news when a white teenage girl becomes an addict. (In the 12-17 age range, the female percentage is actually higher than the male.)

Or consider the controversy around the mosque proposed near Ground Zero. Sweeping generalizations -- despite the numerous facts and nuances involved in this issue -- have escalated it to a shouting match of absolutes from talking heads. (Salon recently published a timeline of how the conversation escalated.)

The Slate article and resulting reactions from black bloggers and Twitter users was covered on NPR's "All Tech Considered" Monday night. The report started out: "Whenever you have a news headline that starts with three words, 'How,' 'Black,' and 'People,' someone's bound to get upset."

Even NPR missed the opportunity to move the conversation forward by setting up its piece with a sweeping generalization: America can't talk about race without shouting! My objections are based on the fact that -- even though the article points out its own shortcomings -- in the end, the title, illustration and the preceding 85 percent of the article reduce those caveats to an aside. My objections are about my belief that journalism and reporting -- especially when labeled as "research" -- have a responsibility to provide context, not to advance misconceptions or generalize for fascination's sake. Stories written that way might be fascinating and awesome, but in short, they just don't help.

P.S. The beauty of the digital age is that I expressed my discomfort with the article on my blog, and the author responded at length. I don't think we made any progress, and it's obviously still bothering me as here I am blogging about it again a week later.

This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon.