by Elaine Uchison
On June 20, 2016, The Seattle Times launched Under Our Skin, a multimedia project aimed at fostering meaningful and honest conversations about race in the region. The site features video interviews with 18 community members from diverse backgrounds. During the interviews, participants were asked to reflect on and talk about a set of terms commonly used in conversations and debates about race. The site is organized by participant and also by term, allowing the user to easily navigate between videos and move organically around the site. It also features an innovative comments section that allows viewers to “react” to the content by choosing from a list of adjectives first and then describing why they felt that way. Additionally, in an attempt to limit toxic comments, all comments are screened before being published, and commenters also have to provide their full name, age and an email address. Collectively, the project is intended to provide nuanced ways of thinking and talking about race in America—in person and online.
Project Goals: The overall goal of the project was to encourage a new way of thinking and talking about race and racism in America by engaging a diverse group of people to share their unique experiences and opinions. The project grew out of conversations among Seattle Times journalists in the newsroom about how they should be covering complex stories about race, such as police shootings, the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, protests on college campuses, and charged rhetoric in political campaigns. As explained on the project’s website, “In our newsroom, we’ve found ourselves talking more candidly about race and racism, subjects that simmer beneath the surface even when they’re not on the front page. As a news organization, we’ve covered the local events as they’ve occurred, but we have a desire to probe the issues more deeply. And there have been instances when our stories have caused offense or led to misunderstandings. This project is just one effort under way in the newsroom to do things differently.”
Tools and Technology: The site is built off of the Seattle Times standard news app template, a Node-based scaffolding for static pages published to Amazon S3. Video was hosted through Brightcove, although some of the smaller placeholder videos (like the intro tiles) are HTML5 video tags. Metadata for each video is stored in Google Sheets. Because the comments section is different from the standard Seattle Times system and includes custom prompts and moderation their solution was to send user comments to a web service written in Google Apps Script and connected to a second spreadsheet. The template automatically downloads and builds from sheets, and they run the build process on a timer so that it picks up new comments as they are marked “approved” in Google Sheets. They also created a “standalone” version of the project that packages the videos as a desktop application, for use in classrooms and installations. This involved an adapted version of the page built for Electron, which is a Chrome-based development tool. If someone wants a copy that works offline, or if it’s going to be shown in the community, we can put the whole package on a USB stick.
Impact: Within a month of the launch date, the site had received 450 comments and published about 60% of them. Commenters ranged in age from 16 to 88 and the videos that generated the most comments were about white fragility, white privilege, and institutional racism. In 2016, the project page was one of the most visited places on the Seattle Times website. Schools, city government, churches, and organizations have used the videos for training purposes and the project has been featured on a number of local media outlets. Today the site still receives and moderates comments on a regular basis. Shortly after it launched, the Under Our Skin team set up booths at BAAMFest, a music and arts festival in the Seattle area. Festival goers could watch the project videos and react to them by filling out cards that followed the same format as the online comments sections. Reactions from the festival as well as comments from the project’s Facebook page were shared in a follow-up Seattle Times article. Four of the journalists involved also held a Reddit AMA after the project launched. Four of the interviewees also participated in the forum, which yielded 122 comments and a rich discussion that focused on the concepts of “institutional racism” and “white privilege.” The project has earned awards from various local and national organizations since its publication. The National Association of Black Journalists named it best “Online Project – Digital Media.” It also received a 2017 RTDNA Kaleidoscope award, a silver award from the Society for News Design, an Asian American Journalists Association Leadership in Diversity Award and received high honors from the Online News Association in 2017.
Organization Background: The Seattle Times is the largest daily newspaper in the Pacific Northwest. Its print and online platforms reach 1.5 million residents. It is independently operated and owned by the local Blethen family. The online platform gets 32 million page views per month.
Project Resources: From conception to publication, the project took about 6 months to complete. The main team of 8 consisted of video journalists, photojournalists, editors, developers, and audience engagement specialists. The team recorded 18 interviews that ranged from 45 minutes to 2.5 hours each. There was no specific budget for the project and team members all had other day-to-day duties during that time. Much of the video interviewing and editing was done outside of the normal work day. In many ways it was a labor of love undertaken by a group of journalists who were passionate about the subject and the potential impact of the project. For the BAAMFest event, about 15 members of the newsroom, not just those who worked on the project, staffed the booth (2 hours each). They used it as a way to get their journalists out into the community, building relationships. The tents, tables, computers, headphones were all things they already had in the newsroom. Additional costs included $40 for monitor risers. The marketing department footed the bill for a sign and the comment cards. Aside from the work hours, it was a very low budget event.
Here’s what worked
1. Allowing the scope and form of the project to develop organically
The team was very intentional about not defining or envisioning what the end product would look like. They approached it in an open-ended way and let the form develop organically as the project progressed. They simply set out to answer the questions, “What is the void in how we talk about and approach race and how can we help solve the problem?” Their goal was to identify a part of the conversation that they could contribute to and figure out the best way to do it.
2. Employing simplicity to explore a complex issue
The simplicity of the website interface, the video production, and the overall concept of the project allowed space for the complexity of the subject matter. The team wanted to create an experience, for the participants and the audience, that was free of bias and removed the potential for value judgements (as much as possible). For example, all of the videos were shot in exactly the same location down to the position of the interviewee and in the same way. They used a neutral blue background and were consistent with lighting. They also decided not to use lower thirds on the videos and instead created bio videos for each of the participants. This allowed participants to describe themselves in their own words. Additionally, the decision to do one-on-one interviews instead of conversations between participants allowed for deeper and more meaningful exploration of the subjects. The team wanted the participants to feel free to express themselves without judgement and because they didn’t have to argue or defend their positions the results of the interviews were much more candid and honest.
3. Engagement strategies to drive the conversation forward
The focus on community engagement has been a key factor in the success and longevity of the project. It has started conversations about race online, but also in person in families and communities. It continues to be used as a tool in classrooms, churches, and organizations. To include more perspectives from the community, readers were encouraged to submit guest essays. Currently, six essays are featured on the site. Simply put, the conversation keeps going.
Here’s what could have worked better
1. Having a plan for what comes next
The team was so immersed in producing the project that they didn’t develop a clear strategic plan for what to do next. It may not have been possible given the organic nature of the production, but the team did express some regrets about not taking the time during production to plan where to take the discussion next.
Here’s what else you should know
The conversation continues. Two years after the initial launch the site continues to get comments and emails. They review comments once or twice a week to approve or reject them, along with highlighting the best ones. They also check the firstname.lastname@example.org inbox daily. The volume varies from week to week. Some weeks they’ll get two and other weeks they’ll get up to 20. They can often tell when a community group or school has screened the project by how many comments appear at once and the ages of the commenters.
Many organizations in the region have used Under Our Skin as a tool to discuss race. Below are a few examples:
- UW Football Coach Chris Peterson used the video series to encourage conversations about race with his team.
- The city of Shoreline, WA screened the video series and hosted a discussion around the project.
- Epiphany of Seattle invited the community to have a conversation about race using the project as a jumping off point.