A true national discussion: social media’s role in America After Charleston

On September 20, PBS broadcast “America After Charleston,” a town-hall special that explored the many issues propelled into public discourse after a white gunman shot and killed nine African-American parishioners in Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in June 2015.

America After Charleston used social media as a core element of the show’s editorial direction, integrating parallel conversations about race, diversity, politics and change seamlessly into the broadcast. The social integration happened every step of the production process:

Before: Using social media to inform the content of the show

The editorial team, led by producers at PBS, WGBH and WETA, used a strong call to action to drive engagement and responses the week before we shot America After Charleston. These call outs focused on a central question, “When we talk about race, what is left unsaid?” Posts by PBS and other partner stations solicited a diverse range of perspectives on this question. The call-out on the PBS Facebook page alone solicited almost 900 comments. We reached out to AJ+ to share the show’s promo, to get a younger audience discussing the issues — the share alone garnered 140 comments. The producers were able to comb through the best responses and incorporate them into the program’s script and into Gwen Ifill’s line of questioning.

Because of a 48-hour gap between the taping of the town hall and its PBS broadcast, we were able to create assets produced specifically for specific social media platforms that we pushed throughout the broadcast window. In addition to digital videos and polls for the website, we produced over 30 assets exclusively for social media distribution, including question graphics, audiograms, Marist poll GIFs and short form video.

During: Social media became a digital version of the Charleston town hall

As the broadcast aired, social media provided a forum for a national conversation on the issues the program raised to occur simultaneously. PBS pushed those pre-produced social media assets across their Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and Instagram pages, catalyzing conversation on each platform that mirrored the on-screen discussion.

The production itself acknowledged the social media conversation, both by reflecting tweets live on air (PBS broadcast 45 separate tweets during the 54 minute broadcast) and by releasing exclusive data from Facebook about the conversation across the social media platform in the weeks after the Charleston shootings. Facebook released data to our production exclusively, which we were able to showcase as an animated heat-map both on the broadcast and through a simultaneous push on social.

As the show was broadcast live from the WGBH studios, the Boston station invited public media producers, reporters and interested parties to join a Broadcast Party. Participants were given materials they could use to live-tweet the program as well as access to a database of other WGBH assets that added context and perspectives to the conversation. PRI’s The World, Frontline, World Channel, and WGBH News joined the live tweet, and one of American Experience’s tweets with historical information about Emmett Till was featured on the live broadcast.

Here are 5 different ways Twitter was used during the #AfterCharlestonPBS broadcast.

According to Nielsen, the broadcast #1 most social TV program in its category on Monday night, as 6,400 tweets lead to over 150 million impressions on Twitter. Facebook also provided a dynamic conversation around the issues: PBS reached 1.1 million Facebook fans across their posts about the program.

After: NewsHour provided a way to continue the conversation

NewsHour provided a forum to continue the conversations begun with the #AfterCharlestonPBS hashtag, through a Twitter chat that occurred on the Thursday after broadcast. Joining that chat were “America After Charleston” panelists Andra Gillespie, Arielle Newton, Michelle Mapp and Bakari Sellers.


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