Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Ebola in the UMC Twitterverse

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Assistant Professor of Religion and Pieper Chair of Servant Leadership at Ripon College.

One of the things that I do on a regular basis for the sake of this blog and the related Twitter feed and online newspaper is read through tweets put out by UMC sources.  I do so to find and retweet international United Methodist news, but it's always a fascinating window into what United Methodists in the US and beyond are talking about.

I have been struck in the past couple of weeks by how much coverage the Ebola outbreak in West Africa has gotten in UMC press coverages.  Much credit goes to E. Julu Swen, a United Methodist journalist from Liberia, for providing stories, pictures, and videos relaying how United Methodists are impacted by and responding to the Ebola outbreak.  You can see his material on his blog or his Twitter account.  Of course, it's not only Mr. Swen who has been reporting on the Ebola crisis, but also umc.orgUMCOR, and the United Methodist Reporter.

I think that amount of coverage is entirely deserved.  This is a big story and directly affects United Methodists in Sierra Leone and Liberia.  United Methodists are dying from the disease.  United Methodists are praying for those affected by Ebola.  United Methodists are helping prevent the spread of the disease.  United Methodists are providing assistance in the fight against Ebola.

What has surprised me about the United Methodist coverage of the Ebola outbreak has not been the merit of the story, but the immediacy and extent of the coverage that a combination of a global denomination and social media make possible.  In the past week or two, there have been stories every day and often several times a day relating the latest developments in this horrific story.  That's almost as much coverage as immigration reform or discussions of schism, two notably headline-grabbing issues in the UMC, are able to generate.

Although the Ebola outbreak is a horrible occurrence, I think the coverage given it in United Methodist social and online media has shown that United Methodists in the United States have an interest in and appetite for news from elsewhere in the connection that can, at times, rival their interest in news from the US.  Certainly the horrific nature of this disease has made the story particularly gripping.  Yet the point remains, United Methodists want to know not just about United Methodists elsewhere around the world but larger events around the world too.

In my academic life, I've done a lot of historical research looking at old American Methodist newspapers from the 19th century.  When first I began to read them, I was surprised to discover how much secular international news that these papers contained.  They reported not just on Methodist affairs in the US or Methodist missions, but also religious, political, economic, scientific, and military news from around the globe.  With the rise of other news outlets, Methodist newspapers gradually reduced the breadth of their coverage and focused more on Methodist news and American news.

While the 19th century is past and gone, the coverage of the Ebola outbreak shows that there is still a desire for the church to be a conduit of information about what's happening around the world, not just what's happening around the denomination.  To that end, I highly recommend two other United Methodist social media sources.  The UMC in France has an excellent Twitter feed that carries many international news stories (many in French, but those can be easily translated with online services), often highlighting the role of religion.  The UMC in the Philippines also has an active Twitter feed sharing stories from the Philippines, the US, and beyond.  United Methodists from any country would benefit from reading the materials posted by these two Methodist news sources.

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