Sue Robinson, professor of journalism at UW-Madison

Sue Robinson, a journalism professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, was looking for a story. She wanted to test academic theories about how social media has changed the flow of information.

It was 2010 and Kaleem Caire, then president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Madison, was starting to make news with a proposal to start Madison Preparatory Academy. The publicly funded charter school for African-American boys aimed to end racial disparities in academic achievement that had dogged the school district for decades.

The proposal demanded a multi-million dollar investment of public money in a school that violated the teachers contract in Wisconsin’s progressive capital just as newly elected Gov. Scott Walker slashed the power of public worker unions.

The issue seemed tailor-made for an investigation into how power and privilege played out in the flow of information.

In her new book “Networked News, Racial Divides,” Robinson analyzes every traditional and new media report leading up to rejection of the Madison Prep proposal by the school board a year later, as well as coverage around racial achievement gaps in four other cities.

Robinson, who was a reporter for a dozen years before turning to academia, spent six years analyzing the data with the help of students. Now she is working through the nonpartisan Kettering Foundation with journalists around the world to change the way reporting is done.

Robinson sat down with the Cap Times (whose work, including this reporter's, was analyzed in the book) to talk about what she found.

Who did you write this book for?

I wrote it for white progressives. I wrote it for professional communicators and reporters. It is ultimately an academic book, but I wanted it to be somewhat useful. It’s kind of a hybrid book.

Did the Madison Prep issue pan out as you hoped it would for communication network analysis?

It did. I didn’t know it was going to be about progressives until much later. I was in the middle of analyzing the case of Madison Prep and I was shopping around the book to publishers and they asked what other communities did you study? I needed mid-sized cities where people were talking about racial achievement disparities in public, so I worked with the Minority Student Achievement Network and narrowed it down to Ann Arbor, Michigan; Evanston, Illinois; Chapel Hill, North Carolina; and Cambridge, Massachusetts. I realized the story is really about progressive identity and how that manifests in an information flow.

So you ended up examining a larger trend than you anticipated?

I think identity always played a part in how people formulate their arguments in a discussion. This was so key about progressives; we are reform-minded and we hope to build an infrastructure that is equitable to everyone. That was the underpinning in each of these communities — everyone was so proud of their school district and yet they had some of the largest disparities in the country.

Sketch out the actors and interaction in the communication around the Madison Prep proposal.

There’s a typology of roles that people play in any information stream. We’ve always had institutions that have actors who are charged with leading the public discussion. We can think of school board members, superintendents, public information officers, reporters and journalists. We’ve always had audiences, citizens who participate in exchanges at meetings and hearings, offline in conversations and letters to the editor. With digital technology, one of my arguments is we’ve expanded the number people who play a part in how information circulates.

What did you find?

What the academic research was able to show was something we kind of all know intuitively: we have a few key players who were responsible for most of the information that was circulating, and a core group having that conversation. Each of these core group members also had their own network where they were circulating information. But the problem was that a lot of these networks where great conversations were happening were isolated and the only people bridging that were community leaders and activists. But it stopped there and instead of community conversation, we ended up having all these silos of talk that weren’t really productive.

Is it productive to talk about the races of these players?

It was both racial and political. TJ Mertz, now he’s on the school board and at the time has was just a blogger who had aspirations, was a very prolific blogger. All the journalists knew about him and often cited him in news articles. His network had a whole bunch of people like teachers, education experts and a lot of sort of kind of middle class parents, a lot of progressives. And then we had Kaleem Caire, who was an African-American community leader who brought the proposal, so it wasn’t a surprise we saw him as one of the most influential information producers. And he had a national network, and parents, and reverends. And then we had the reporters. They were talking as well to the same policy makers as TJ and Kaleem, but also their own set of experts. We also looked at how bloggers in town were gaining in influence or waning in influence.

What did you find regarding how the newer media affected the information flow?

There’s a whole literature that talks about how wonderful digital media interactivity is going to be in terms of democratic engagement and participation. But when you start analyzing who’s being cited by whom and which blogs are achieving a level of mainstream circulation, you don’t really see a lot.

Did the smaller players affect the outcome?

I think that was always going to be “no.” But we could have had a more productive conversation, inclusive of a lot more voices, had journalists and public information officers tapped into other networks that they knew existed.

One suggestion you make is to be more deeply sourced, to speak with people who are not recognized leaders in the community.

Right and we talk about why that didn’t happen. “I went into a neighborhood and couldn’t get anyone to talk to me on the record.” “I had a deadline; I had to do the meeting story.” There were a lot of really good reasons why, given the traditional norms and routines, it didn’t happen. But it didn’t and the narratives ended up fundamentally propping up these systems that are already in place. So I’m arguing for a fundamental re-thinking of how journalists go about their job.

This admonition to go out and cultivate all kinds of sources is not new.

But my suggestion goes a little deeper. I feel the findings show journalists have to rethink how they build trust, particularly in marginalized communities. There needs to be a whole lot more sort of social justice training and appreciating of how one goes about building trust in different kinds of communities.

Cultural sensitivity.

Yeah, but it has to be in combination with self-work that journalists need to do. They need to understand: “Where have I been complicit in creating systems of repression? How have I been, what is my activity in that?”

You’re saying that it important for white reporters to realize they're acting through a lens of white privilege.

Also an understanding of the progressive ideology in these towns, understanding how power dynamics work. When I was a reporter, I didn’t think about black, brown, white. I didn’t think about system of oppression and how that treats people differently. If you had suggested it to me when I was a reporter, I probably would have argued that goes against all my training.

And you’re asking traditional media to become aware of how white-dominated they are and how that effects the work produced.

I think most of the media in town are already very aware of how white dominated their newsrooms are and are making herculean efforts to try to diversify. But it’s difficult when Madison has a reputation for graduating two of four black boys on time, to ask an African-American family to move here to work in the newsroom and have your kids go to the schools is asking a lot. But yes, the more diversity we can get into our newsroom, the better we’re going to be at reporting on these systems of oppression. But that doesn’t absolve the rest of us white people from making sure we know every story we report and write is through a racial lens of whiteness and what that means.

I think people might not know what it means.

Right? I was so ignorant when I started this book. It wasn’t until I started listening to some of my friends and doing some training and reading that I started recognizing how I have I have been complicit. What was I doing that was helping prop up these systems and what could I do to disrupt racism in my own life and how could I teach my kid differently and how could I teach my students differently. So this personal reckoning happened. And it was real awkward and uncomfortable and embarrassing

The book includes several recommendations to improve information exchange around controversial public policies. Talk about the most important.

The most important thing is that we all do our own individual work of understanding our own biases. We all have a role to play in trying to disrupt racism.

For public communicators, I give some specific examples of how you could use Facebook in conjunction with a key influencer to work in collaboration to get in to some of those communities

You’ve also introduced some new work with students.

I developed a class at UW-Madison. It’s a service learning class where we use some of these principles and see how they play out. I tell them: We‘re going to experiment with some different ways of doing things and some of them are going to fail and some of them are going to change the way you think about reporting.

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