Standing tall at the crossroads of race, media, power

What is it like to go from defending your dissertation to rubbing shoulders with the likes of 
tennis great Serena Williams and music phenom Janelle Monáe on The Root’s “One Hundred” list of influencers? What does it take to go from grad school to the French Embassy to the editorial board of a newspaper to an academic position at the University of Virginia, doing research at the intersection of race, media and power?

For answers, we talked with UNC School of Media and Journalism alumna and former Park Fellow Meredith Clark '14 (Ph.D.), an assistant professor in the Department of Media Studies at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, where she's teaching “#BlackTwitter and Black Digital Culture” and "Black Girl Magic in Media" and researching new media.

A tall woman with a regal bearing, Clark’s bright smile and direct gaze draw in those around her. Clark was raised in Lexington, Kentucky. An ever-curious child, she remembered writing a neighborhood newsletter at age 11 and agreeing with her sixth-grade classmates when they nominated her most likely to become a journalist and foreign service officer when she grew up.

“I liked making sense of what other people couldn’t seem to see,” she said. “Even as a kid, there were dynamics I would pick up on: ‘Oh, this is happening because this person does this and that person does that.’”

As time passed, it became obvious to Clark that journalism was a good fit for her brand of curiosity and interest in digging for details.

"Meredith was always a standout in our Ph.D. program," said Susan King, dean of the MJ-school. "Her passion for public discourse and understanding of the intersection of race, media and power are setting the standard for other industry scholars. I’m proud of former students like her who have forged their own intriguing career paths by following that drive wherever it leads.”

When it came time for higher education in 1998, Clark’s mother — who went to a historically black college in New Orleans — insisted that her daughter also attend an HBCU. Clark ended up at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (FAMU), where her grandmother had studied decades earlier. She spent the next 12 years in Tallahassee, with one year’s hiatus in France.

“I absolutely loved it [at FAMU],” said Clark. “Having come from a place where I was often the only black student in my class, or one of two and often mistaken for the other one, it was just a completely different cultural experience.”

She added that going to FAMU was one of the best decisions she’s ever made in her life.

“I had professors that I have relationships with to this day who did things like call when I was sick,” she said. "I experienced a major depressive episode when I was an undergrad, and my professors really worked with me to keep me on track.”

After graduating with a bachelor's degree in political science and a minor in French in 2002, Clark found she didn’t want to leave Tallahassee. She worked for a year, then went back to FAMU in 2006 for her master’s degree in journalism. She continued to be mentored and watched over by the professors who meant so much to her.

“I delayed acceptance of her thesis because I knew she could fine-tune it,” remembered Valerie White, associate professor in the journalism program. “I told her that the study was too important not to be exceptional. I required her to sit at my dining room table with her laptop until she had the document up to my standards. She received my thumbs up in record time. Her study would be a reference point for other studies.”

While still a graduate student, Clark began working for the city’s daily paper, the Tallahassee Democrat, which Gannett acquired in a 2005 newspaper swap with Knight Ridder. After a year with the French Embassy in a small town southeast of Paris (proving those sixth-grade soothsayers right), Clark returned to the Democrat. She was named to the editorial board at the age of 27, giving her both a powerful voice in the board room and a weekly column to write.

“I can’t believe anyone gave me that much responsibility [that young],” she laughed. “But it was a gift, honestly. Because I got to be a voice for a large segment of Tallahassee. A number of people were in that age range, and then being a black woman and being able to bring that perspective to my work: Yeah, it was great.”

For the paper, Clark wrote about 14-year-old Martin Lee Anderson, who died in 2006 while incarcerated at a boot camp-style youth detention center in Panama City, Florida. She also reported on the prevalence of the word “female” as a noun in place of the word “woman,” which she was hearing first in hip-hop lyrics and then more in everyday conversation. She interpreted it as a carry-over from prison terminology where prisoners are called “male” or “female.” And she penned a column on the difficulty of making friends in your 20s, speculating that technological devices kept her generation from making real-life social connections.

“I still miss journalism,” she said. “I thought eventually I would get over it, but I haven’t. I always refer to myself as a recovering journalist.”

But years before, one of her FAMU professors had predicted that she’d go into academia rather than pursue journalism. Clark was intrigued by the prediction. She agreed that her natural inclination was to take whatever she was doing and push it to the ultimate. She told herself, “In terms of getting an education, what is the degree that I can get that caps it all off? A Ph.D? OK, great. Let’s do that.” She began mapping out her future, and how to move — in time — from industry to academe.

And then came 2008: the year of the global economic downturn and four rounds of layoffs at the Tallahassee paper. Eventually, Clark decided it was as good a time as any to get the Ph.D. she had originally planned to pursue after a decade in the business. She came to Chapel Hill with a group of other potential Park Fellows, and left feeling good about the great conversations she’d had with MJ-school faculty like Associate Professor Rhonda Gibson about her professional goals; and the high caliber of Park Fellow candidates she’d met over the course of the weekend. A blizzard at Syracuse University, where she planned to interview next, iced the deal. She made a commitment to UNC.

In Chapel Hill, her initial dissertation ideas didn’t come to fruition. She turned to her thoughts that the ongoing media analysis of what pundits called “Black Twitter” was doing the phenomenon a disservice.

“I knew that there was community structure there, I knew the conversations went beyond the banalities that I saw being reported on,” she said. She decided to pursue a more accurate analysis of how blacks in America (and eventually, around the globe) were using Twitter.

“The one thing I knew I wanted to do,” she said, “was make sure this was in the critical cyber-culture literature.”

She noted the widespread adoption of Twitter by black adults in the U.S., and how the conversations taking place via the social network could drive conversation in the media — particularly digital media — of the day.

In August 2014, Clark defended her dissertation about Black Twitter — which she defines as “a temporally linked group of connectors that share culture, language and interest in specific issues and talking about specific topics with a black frame of reference.” Her academic analysis — one of the first of its kind to address the social media phenomenon — won a top dissertation award from the Association for Educators in Journalism and Mass Communication. Her analysis in “To tweet our own cause: A mixed-methods study of the online phenomenon ‘Black Twitter’” was timely and of interest to the general public. Journalists came calling. Clark was interviewed by the likes of The Washington Post, Huffington Post and in 2015, a particularly in-depth interview with Donovan X. Ramsey for The Atlantic magazine.

It was heady stuff.

“My dissertation came out at a time when it was the right moment for that research,” she said. “It was very well-received.”

Clark left Carolina with bona fide journalism credentials and the academic chops to land a tenure-track position fresh out of graduate school, and quickly made her way to Virginia after three years in Texas.

“I saw her really take off as an engaged researcher, especially working on and with #blacktwitter,” said UNC professor and director Paul Jones. “She's the real thing — someone with journalism practice and serious research approaches, with an eye toward their impacts on our understanding.” 

At UVA, Clark sometimes collaborates with the MJ-school’s Associate Professor Deen Freelon.

“I enjoy working with him because he’s the big data guy,” said Clark. “But I do mostly qualitative work. I work with very small sets of data.”

The most recent report Clark did with Freelon received some attention from academics. Even Twitter’s founder, Jack Dorsey, took note at one point — via tweet, of course.

Alongside her teaching, research and the traveling she does to talk about her work with audiences across the country every semester, Clark is making plans for her future book, a project she wasn’t even beginning to think about until recently.

“When I defended my dissertation,” Clark recalled, “[MJ-school Associate Professor] Daniel Kreiss replied to something I’d said with, ‘You can talk more about that in your book.’”

It’s taken some time for her to work out the book’s framework and for the arguments to mature, but Clark now agrees that her work is ready for that format. Her current thinking is that the book will allow her to analyze the way that new media (like Twitter) is a space for researchers to identify cultural filters, and understand how those prisms are helping to refine how the news gets reported, better reflecting today’s values.

Twitter executive Tom Ciszek notes that the social media firm has an academic research program and that he’s on the look-out for opportunities to work with external researchers. He personally is familiar with Clark’s work.

“Collectively, black voices together [on Twitter] are very powerful,” he said. “Meredith is certainly the foremost expert voice on Black Twitter,” he added. 

“The day Twitter calls me, I will be ready,” said Clark. “I dream about it all the time. … I’ve applied for a small Twitter research grant before where they were just going to give you access to the data and … bottom line, that’s all I want. But if I could be inside and learn a little bit more about some of the processes, I would absolutely love that. I am waiting for the day. I can see myself swimming like Scrooge McDuck through the tweets.”

Photos © 2018 Dare Johnson, Kumolu Studios