The Upside Of That Stupid NPR Tweet About Not Being Able to Find Diverse Sources

Wednesday, July 09, 2014 - 09:12 AM

On July 2nd, NPR education blogger Anya Kamenetz landed in hot water for the following tweet: 

Since then, Kamenetz has apologized, and yesterday, NPR's Mark Memmott issued a response memo to NPR staff. Here's an excerpt: 

"If you wouldn’t say it on the air, don’t say it on the Web.” That’s been the basic guidance for quite a few years. In reality, Twitter and other social media sites allow us to show more of our personalities than we might on the air or in a blog post. BUT, though the words may be on “personal” Twitter or Facebook accounts, what we say can reflect on NPR and raise questions about our ability to be objective. Matt Thompson offers a test. Before posting something about your work or a news event or an issue, even if you’re putting it on what you think of as a personal page, ask this question: “Is it helping my journalism, or is it hurting my journalism?”

So first, to be clear, Kamenetz's tweet was bad. It expressed a stupid thought that hurt her and her employer's credibility.  

But surprisingly, I think this dumb tweet actually passes the test Memmott proposes: it probably helped her journalism more than it hurt it. Kamenetz had a stupid thought -- that her lack of deep relationships with non-white sources reflected on those sources, rather than on her journalism. She aired her thought in public. People corrected her. She changed her thinking. That's actually how social media is supposed to work for reporters. It's not just a place where you broadcast your stories to a grateful audience, never embarrassing your employer or yourself. It's a place where you can also think out loud and get feedback. 

NPR has a diversity problem, and one of the many drawbacks of that is that reporters are less likely to have their own limited perspectives challenged. The only solution to that problem is more diverse newsrooms and more diverse shows. In the meantime though, I'm in favor of dumb assumptions being corrected in public, rather than quietly infecting NPR's reporting. Memmott's directive was "If you wouldn’t say it on the air, don’t say it on the Web." But because Kamenetz said a dumb thing on the web, she'll now say smarter things on the air. 


More in:

Comments [11]

Whitaker from Washington, DC

Who's calling whom stupid?

On The Media Associate Producer PJ Vogt dumps on Anya Kamenetz for a tweet attributed to her on July 2nd: "I reach out to diverse sources on deadline. Only the white guys get back to me :(."

Vogt writes "So first, to be clear, Kamenetz's tweet was bad. It expressed a stupid thought that hurt her and her employer's credibility." Vogt went on to explain that her stupid thought was that "her lack of deep relationships with non-white sources reflected on those sources, rather than on her journalism. She aired her thought in public. People corrected her. She changed her thinking."

Now perhaps there were other tweets or perhaps Vogt knows something else that he didn't explain in his piece, but Kamenetz's tweet says nothing whatsoever about why non-white sources didn't get back to her. Kamenetz's tweet merely asserted what should be called "facts" -- that she reached out to diverse sources but only white sources responded. Vogt hasn't offered any evidence to justify blaming her for blaming her sources. Daniel Patrick Moynihan said you are entitled to your own opinion but not your own facts. Vogt doesn't seem to understand the difference.

As for people correcting Kamenetz and Kamenetz changing her thinking, this reminds me of the Chinese re-educatioon through labor effort -- now that is what I would call a stupid thought.

Finally, Vogt bemoans NPR's diversity problem and the limited perspectives of NPR reporters, saying the "only solution to that problem is more diverse newsrooms and more diverse shows." I think such diversity is a good idea, but in the meantime, NPR, its reporters, and its producers could take a big step in the right direction if they understood the difference between fact and opinion, became more tolerant of diversity of thought, and stopped insisting on "right thinking."

Jul. 10 2014 09:05 AM

Dumb question, but if you're commenting on your own person experiences with an admittedly somewhat flip characterization, do you really need to also cite scientific studies to back up your claim?

Jul. 10 2014 01:12 AM
rhk20190 from 20190

"I reach out to diverse sources on deadline. Only the white guys get back to me :( " This is plaintive, not racist. Note the sad face. How is it "racist" to wish that not only "white guys" would communicate with you? If there is any (gasp) preference/prejudice expressed, it would appear to be against these way too chatty white guys. What in the world has gotten into commenters such as Rachel and Daniel (and others)? Such helpful instruction in how to see and interact with the world! Such ernest didacticism! And how flatly wrong. It is illogical to interpret Anya's tweet as in any way a "generalization." It is reporting, as in "I queried (a) universe consisting of a,b, & c types, and only b types responded."
That is all we actually know from the tweet. How Anya knows that only b types responded might be the first question to ask, certainly before calling out the sensitivity squad.
Juan Williams, we never knew thee.

Jul. 09 2014 08:19 PM
Rachel from uk

She didn't say "I've just contacted loads of sources, but only the white ones replied" - the implication of her tweet was that, in her experience, non-white sources never respond to her requests. Frankly I do not believe that is true. Besides, perhaps the content of her request was offensive or demeaning to certain people, and they declined to respond. Perhaps she left little time and very few had a chance to respond. We can go on about it all day without knowing the details - the point is, sweeping generalisations about minority groups is racism, end of story, just as sweeping generalisations about women are misogynistic. These comments reveal a prejudice, placing a divide between one group and another.

As for any station becoming more diverse and losing loyal followers, that's pathetic. It's nothing like a music station changing styles - the race of the presenters and sources shouldn't affect your enjoyment or loyalty. If it does, you need to seriously question why. The world is becoming increasingly diverse, those trying to hold back the tide will fail.

Jul. 09 2014 05:36 PM

Dear PXLated,

Unlike irv and you, the NPR tweeter acknowledged the offensive nature of the tweet.

Here is another way to better understand how what seems like an innocent observation is actually not.

A person approaches ten people with a question. Based on the responses, the person makes a statement about all people based on skin color. The mistakes made include:
* Not understanding that the approach may have been different based on the prejudice of the person asking the question. For example, the approach may have been different or perceived differently. The questioner may be unaware of how they treat the people being asked: was it in an exasperating tone, patronizing or dismissive?
* Sweeping generalizations or blaming others is an indication of a negative approach.

Yes, the statement which may well have been true based on subjective observation. If a blatant racist approach was taken, and the racist noted truthfully about how many were turned off by their approach, the truthfulness does not make the statement any less racist.

Probably, the tweeter does not feel as if she is a racist, and that she was being neutral in her questioning and assessment. Intention and truthfulness about observations do not mitigate prejudice, racial or otherwise. Fortunately, she is learning from her mistake. I would hope you learn from her mistake as well.

Daniel Bennett

Jul. 09 2014 03:36 PM

I'm with irv - Not seeing racism and his other examples are right on the money

Jul. 09 2014 02:33 PM
Buzz from Philly PA

Picking up on the OTM story (end of Tell me More) about the NPR audience being 81-87% white, I have to say that I have heard this "white men" phrase repeatedly on the air in the past year or so, assumedly uttered by non white men.

It's a real turn off for someone that has been a listener for almost twenty five years.

In essence what you are doing is taking a Rock N Roll format radio station and going Country Western. Soon you will be wondering where all of your formerly loyal listeners have gone and why the "new" audience you expected to materialize did not flock to your "great" new format.

Jul. 09 2014 12:07 PM

Dear irv,

Perhaps you can say that the NPR reporter did not intend to say anything racist, which is not clear. What OTM is correctly pointing out is that sometimes having a frank and open discussion about statements like these we can hope to learn how to be better.

Statements can both be true and racist. Your example of a sampling test may sound to be objective, but it is not. The subjective truth means that the person is not neutral witness and therefore they can be accurate about their observations, but that their prejudices are likely influencing the outcome of the observations. If the NPR reporter were objective, then the reporter would have referred to scientific studies and statistics that were more relevant than her own personal experience.

The difference between subjective and objective truth is often very hard to discern, but in the case of the tweet, the statement was a very subjective probably influenced by a prejudice. That is why many would say that the claim was racist, even if unintentional.

Hope that helps,
Daniel Bennett

Jul. 09 2014 11:45 AM
NT from New York

Her name is spelled Anya Kamenetz

Jul. 09 2014 10:59 AM

I'm not seeing the racism, sorry. just like it can't be libel or slander if it's true, the reporter tweeted about her personal experience with a group of people. would it be sexist if she reached out to 5 men and 5 women and only the men responded and she noted that in a tweet? or ageist if she reached out to 10 under thirty and 10 over and only one group replied?

Jul. 09 2014 10:46 AM
Francesco from Chicago

I agree that NPR has some work to do in regards to the racial make up of their staff. But I also do not think that it's always the best for someone to say something that is racist and then be corrected. I think white folks needs to actively reflect on their thoughts about race and continuously examine their actions and the things they say. This is a much better alternative, then having someone say something hurtful and then apologizing after being called out. To be honest, I'm tired of white folks being super racist, then being corrected, and then treating the whole thing has a learning experience. We shouldn't treat anti-racist work as a form of schooling, where someone has to learn from another. Anti-racist work needs to begin with the individual critically thinking about how they exist in the world. And sadly, white folks have the privilege to not think about this and therefore, rely on others to call them out and teach them a lesson.

Jul. 09 2014 10:35 AM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.

Supported by

Embed the TLDR podcast player

TLDR is a short podcast and blog about the internet by Meredith Haggerty. You can subscribe to the TLDR podcast here. You can follow our blog here. I tweet @manymanywords and @tldr.

Subscribe to Podcast iTunes RSS