Ph.D. Student Work

Students in the Ph.D. program study a wide range of topics related to media and communications. Some of the doctoral dissertations that have been successfully defended in recent years are described here.

Fall Colloquiums

Second-Order Network Development in India: Mobile Phone Users and the Indian Premier League

Colin Agur, 2014

This dissertation examines second order network formation on India's large and rapidly expanding mobile phone networks. It does so by examining a particular second order network - the Indian Premier League (IPL) mobile network. Using a case study approach and a mix of ethnographic methods and textual analysis, I explore the history that preceded the IPL mobile network, the intentions of its creators, the processes by which users participate on the network, and the outcomes of network expansion and evolution. I deploy the space of flows concept of Manuel Castells, to draw attention to continuity and change in Indian communication networks, and to highlight the new spatial dynamics at work in mass mobile telephony. This dissertation emphasizes the transformative nature of second order networks and identifies the ways that masses of users can disrupt and alter communication networks, especially in contexts of informal economics and power structures.

 

Photography Distinguishes Itself: Law and the Emerging Profession of Photography in the 19th Century United States

Lynn Berger, 2016 
 
This dissertation examines the role of the law in the development of photography in nineteenth century America, both as a technology and as a profession. My central thesis is that the social construction of technology and the definition of the photographic profession were interrelated processes, in which legislation and litigation were key factors: I investigate this thesis through three case studies that each deal with a (legal) controversy surrounding the new medium of photography in the second half of the nineteenth century. 
Section 1, “Peer Production” in the Age of Collodion, examines the role of another relatively new medium in the nineteenth century – the periodical press – in forming, defining, and sustaining a nation-wide community of photographers, a community of practice. It argues that photography was in some ways similar to what we would today recognize as a “peer produced” technology, and that the photographic trade press, which first emerged in the early 1850s, was instrumental in fostering knowledge sharing and open innovation among photographers. It also, from time to time, served as a site for activism, as I show in a case study of the organized resistance against James A. Cutting’s “bromide patent” (1854-1868). 
 
Section 2, Spirit Photography, Boundary-Work, and the Socio-Legal Shaping of Photography, focuses on the attempts of Oscar G. Mason and other photographers to get “spirit” photographer William H. Mumler behind bars for fraud and deception in 1869. Seeking to uphold the image of photography as a scientific, mechanically objective technology, and that of the photographer as an honest, trustworthy, and honorable professional, these photographers turned the courtroom into an arena for both the social construction of technology and for policing the boundaries of the photographic profession. 
 
Section 3, “Privacy, Copyright, and Photography in the United States, is about a question that photographers, publishers, courts and legislators spent much of the nineteenth century struggling to answer: who was the rightful author, and therefore owner, of a photograph? The Section details why that question arose when it did – in the final third of the nineteenth century – as well as the different ways in which photographers, their opponents, and representatives of the law struggled to define the nature of photography along with the meaning of photographic copyright. It also deals with the emergence, around the turn of the century, of a third party claiming ownership in the photograph – the sitter – and with how the “right to privacy” was formulated in part to accommodate that party. Finally, this third Section reveals the sometimes contradictory and often quite resourceful ways in which both the advocates and adversaries of photographic copyright enlisted the right to privacy in order to back up their own property claims, even when the nascent privacy right was meant to curtail the power of both these parties. =

Patterns in the Chaos: News and Nationalism in Afghanistan, America and Pakistan During Wartime, 2010-2012

Katherine Ann Brown, 2013 

This dissertation examines the United States's elite news media's hegemony in a global media landscape, and how it can come to stand for the entire American nation in the imagination of outsiders. In this transnational, instantaneous digital media arena, what is created for an American audience can fairly easily be accessed, interpreted and relayed to another. How, then, is U.S. international news, which is traditionally ethnocentric and security-focused, absorbed in Afghanistan and Pakistan, two countries where the United States has acute foreign policy interests? 

This study draws from two bodies of scholarship that are analogous, yet rarely linked together. The first is on hegemony and the U.S. news media's relationship with American society and the government. This includes scholarship on indexing and cascading; agenda building and agenda setting; framing; and reporting during conflict. The second is on the American news media's relationship with the world, and nationalism as a fixed phenomenon in international news. This includes examining the different kinds of press systems that exist globally, and how they interact with each other. Afghanistan and Pakistan's media systems have expanded dramatically since being freed in 2002 and they struggle daily with making sense of the volatility that comes with the U.S.-led Afghanistan war. Through 64 qualitative, in-depth interviews with Afghan, American and Pakistani journalists, this study explores the sociology of news inside Afghanistan and Pakistan and how the American news narrative is received there. 

There is a widespread, long-standing perception in Afghanistan and Pakistan that American journalists stain the reputation of their nations as failed states. Just as the U.S. exercises global hegemony in a material sense, the U.S. media is powerful in shaping how American and international publics see the world. Yet, while American foreign correspondents are U.S.-centric in their reportage on the Afghan, American and Pakistani entanglement, so too are Afghan journalists Afghan-centric and Pakistani journalists Pakistani-centric. Nationalism is how journalists organize chaos and complexity. While their news stories can represent an entire nation, they are more likely to harden national identities than to broker understanding between nations.

Threatened Innocents and the News: The History of a National Preoccupation

Alexandra (Sasha) Meltzer Goldman, 2014 
 
This dissertation traces the history of media coverage of the "Threatened Innocent"--a young, often female victim--who has been killed, kidnapped or otherwise endangered. Charting the evolution of this narrative through the centuries, it contends that these stories are rooted in the Puritan captivity narratives of the late 1600s, when the kidnapping of Europeans by Indians was not uncommon. From the establishment of child abuse and kidnapping for ransom as social problems in the nineteenth century, to the moral panic over child snatching in the 1980s and so-called Internet predators in more recent years, this dissertation examines the stories that have created the template for the way we understand Threatened Innocents today.

This dissertation further argues that the power of these stories springs as much from the language with which they are told and the rhetoric with which they are surrounded as from the plot points themselves. Since the conservative capture of populism--a decades-long process completed in the 1980s--stories of Threatened Innocents have successfully yoked together this quintessentially American narrative with this quintessentially American rhetoric, resulting in a powerful discourse whose effects are as profound and as they are far-reaching. 

Our fixation with stories of Threatened Innocents has, at every turn, wedded narrative tradition to a sense of national identity and civic responsibility. The overarching contention is that the stories we tell shape our lives personally and publicly, establishing a social reality that is often untethered to fact. 

Deciding What's True: Fact-Checking Journalism and the New Ecology of News

 
Lucas Graves, 2013 
 
This dissertation studies the new class of political fact-checkers, journalists who specialize in assessing the truth of public claims--and who, it is argued, constitute a professional reform movement reaching to the center of the elite US news media. In less than a decade this emergent genre of news has become a basic feature of political coverage. It figures prominently in national debates and commands the direct attention of elite political actors, who respond publicly to the fact-checkers and dedicate staff to dealing with them, especially during electoral campaigns. This study locates fact-checking in a wider practice of "annotative journalism," with precursors in the muckraking tradition in American news, which has come into flower in an online media environment characterized by promiscuous borrowing and annotation. Participant observation and content analysis are used together to examine the day-to-day work of the news organizations leading the fact-checking movement. This approach documents the specific and forceful critique of conventional journalistic practice which the fact-checkers enact in their newswork routines and in their public and private discourse.
Fact-checkers are a species of practical epistemologists, who seek to reform and thus to preserve the objectivity norm in American journalism, even as their daily work runs up against the limits of objective factual analysis. In politics, they acknowledge, "facts can be subjective." Fact-checkers are also active participants in an emerging news ecosystem in which stories develop, and authority is constructed, in patterns of citation and annotation across discursive networks of media and political actors. This study demonstrates how attention to these media-political networks subtly informs and constrains the work of producing objective assessments of factual claims. And it suggests that the objective status of the fact-checkers themselves can be seen as a function of their position in media-political networks, reproduced in formal and informal partnerships and, most immediately, in the pattern of outlets which cite and quote and link to them. This perspective helps to account for the surprising limits of the political critique offered by professional fact-checkers, who argue for a more honest, fearless journalism but carefully avoid the largest and most controversial political conclusions that emerge from their own work. In seeking to redefine objective practice for a changed media environment, the new genre of fact-checking underscores the essentially defensive nature of what has been called the "strategic ritual" of journalistic objectivity. 

Model Interventions: The Evolution of Media Development Strategies in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, and Macedonia from 2000 to 2007

Hawley Johnson, 2012 
 
The United States, in cooperation with European governments and international aid organizations, has sponsored the development of independent media as a major component of both conflict interventions and democratization programs, and more recently as part of nation building efforts. This study explores the evolution and export of those dominant democratic media models and their impact on recipient communities in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Macedonia from 2000 to 2007. International donors came to see media development as a silver bullet for democratization efforts to foster freedom of speech, civil society, good governance, as well as an engaged citizenry. Donors and practitioners initially believed that institutions, once established, would function in a specific way, and coupled with assistance to professionalize and commercialize the media sector, would create or at least jump start systems similar to those in the US and Europe.
Over the years, policy makers have identified the vital parts of a democratic media system, but what they have failed to fully understand is the dynamic interaction among them. Now, more than fifteen years after the end of the Bosnian war and twelve after the end of the war in Kosovo, numerous assessments by government sponsors and independent evaluators have reported success in achieving fundamental media freedoms in these countries, yet these media sectors have not demonstrated their anticipated transformative power – leaving struggling or dysfunctional organizations in the wake of donor financial retreat. This study argues that media organizations and institutions are trapped between pressures to commercialize and professionalize, which have become conflicting rather than enabling forces when combined with weak economic environments. In each of the countries in this study, a lack of synchronization among reforms, political divisions, and poor economic growth have contributed to a web of interrelated challenges. Despite significant economic reforms, growth and stability have never reached a threshold for systemic change.

“Guttersnipes” and “Eliterates”: City College in the Popular Imagination

Philip Kay, 2011

Young people go to college not merely to equip themselves for competition in the workplace, but also to construct new identities and find a home in the world. This dissertation shows how, in the midst of wrenching social change, communities, too, use colleges in their struggle to reinvent and re-situate themselves in relation to other groups. 

As a case study of this symbolic process I focus on the City College of New York, the world's first tuition-free, publicly funded municipal college, erstwhile "Harvard of the Poor" and birthplace of affirmative action programs and "Open Admissions" in higher education. I examine five key moments between 1940 and 2000 when the college dominated the headlines and draw on journalistic accounts, memoirs, guidebooks, fiction, poetry, drama, songs, and interviews with former students and faculty to chart the institution's emergence as a cultural icon, a lightning rod, and the perennial focus of public controversy. In each instance a variety of actors from the Catholic Church to the New York Post mobilized popular perceptions in order to alternately shore up and erode support for City College and, in so doing, worked to reconfigure the larger New York public. 

The five episodes consist of the following: (1) In 1940 a state judge barred the philosopher Bertrand Russell from joining the faculty and a sweeping "investigation" followed that resulted in a purge of fifty allegedly Communist professors from the faculty. (2) Ten years later seven members of City College's national championship basketball team, all of them Jewish or black, were convicted of consorting with professional gamblers to fix games. (3) Then in 1969, in the midst of a mayoral primary, black and Puerto Rican students seeking greater access for members of the surrounding Harlem community seized control of City's South Campus and shut down the college for two tense weeks that were followed by a series of violent racial clashes. (4) Those events in turn ushered in the school's radical and hotly contested experiment with "Open Admissions" along with a decade of relentless media attacks, nostalgia for an imaginatively constructed golden age, and series of dramatic cuts to the college's budget and staff that occasioned the end of its century-old tradition of free tuition. (5) Finally, in 1991 one Afrocentric professor's outrageous remarks about Jews coupled with an accident at a student-sponsored fundraiser in the college gym that claimed nine young lives came—through the offices of the mass media—to stand for the anarchy and physical danger that seemed to be engulfing not only the institution but the city itself. 

Taken together these five moments, with their attendant tabloid scandals, ritual sacrifices, and manufactured crises, foreground the cultural dimension of City College's history and the construction—including the self-construction, even performance—of particular varieties of student and teacher, both past and present. Newspapers and their various publics were central to—indeed, constitutive of—the process by which different communities claimed disparate meanings for the institution and deployed those meanings toward their own, distinctive ends. The press provided the main stage upon which to enact bitter struggles and excommunication ceremonies and encouraged readers to use the college to reimagine themselves and their place in the changing city and nation.

Under the Eye of Providence: Surveilling Religious Expression in the United States

Kathryn A. Montalbano, 2016

This dissertation analyzes how government agencies contemplated the religious expression of Mormons of the Territory of Utah in the 1870s and 1880s, Quakers of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) from the late 1940s to the early 1960s, and Muslims of Brooklyn, New York, from 2002 to 2013. Nineteenth-century federal marshals and judges in the Territory of Utah, mid-twentieth century FBI agents throughout the United States, and New York Police Department officers in post-September 11 New York were prompted to monitor each religious community by their concerns about polygamy, communism, and terrorism, respectively, which shaped the distinctive environments in which the government agencies analyzed the religious communities. The government agencies did not just observe the communities, but they probed precisely what constituted religion itself.

Virtual Foreign Bureaus and the New Ecology of International News

Soomin Seo, 2016 

This dissertation investigates the phenomenon of the digitally native production of foreign and international news in Anglo-American media. The focus is on the news startups I am calling
“virtual foreign bureaus” (VFBs), independent, professional and niche news outlets that carry out
much of the reporting remotely. These news startups have increased in numbers and importance with the shutdowns of foreign bureaus in traditional news organizations. Using newsroom visits,
interviews, and content analysis, I compare and contrast journalistic routines and norms of VFBs
with those of traditional foreign correspondence.

As organizations, VFBs are more networked
and less hierarchal than traditional foreign bureaus. I find a different use of sources, with open-
source Web databases, crowdsourced material, and social network sources taking precedence
over traditional “human” sources, because the former are more accessible to VFBs and also seen
as more verifiable than the latter. Despite these differences, I note an increasing convergence of
the norms of VFBs and traditional foreign correspondence, working toward the creation of a
hybrid professional identity. As organizations, VFBs are entrepreneurial, seeking to combine
multiple funding streams to achieve financial independence and sustainability. They rely heavily
on foundation grants and partnerships, but such relationships rarely constitute a sustainable
business model. I argue that any meaningful solution to the financial woes of foreign reporting
should include policy interventions and an infusion of public funds. This dissertation investigates the phenomenon of the digitally native production of foreign and international news in Anglo-American media. The focus is on the news startups I am calling “virtual foreign bureaus” (VFBs), independent, professional and niche news outlets that carry out much of the reporting remotely. These news startups have increased in numbers and importance with the shutdowns of foreign bureaus in traditional news organizations. Using newsroom visits, interviews, and content analysis, I compare and contrast journalistic routines and norms of VFBs with those of traditional foreign correspondence. As organizations, VFBs are more networked and less hierarchal than traditional foreign bureaus. I find a different use of sources, with open-source Web databases, crowdsourced material, and social network sources taking precedence over traditional “human” sources, because the former are more accessible to VFBs and also seen as more verifiable than the latter. Despite these differences, I note an increasing convergence of the norms of VFBs and traditional foreign correspondence, working toward the creation of a hybrid professional identity. As organizations, VFBs are entrepreneurial, seeking to combine multiple funding streams to achieve financial independence and sustainability. They rely heavily on foundation grants and partnerships, but such relationships rarely constitute a sustainable business model. I argue that any meaningful solution to the financial woes of foreign reporting should include policy interventions and an infusion of public funds.

 

Global Iconic Events: How News Stories Travel Through Time, Space and Media

Published by Oxford University Press in 2016 as Stories Without Borders: The Berlin Wall and the Making of a Global Iconic Event

Julia Sonnevend, 2013

This dissertation examines how a news event may become a global social myth. In order to track this voyage from the particular to the universal, I developed a theoretical concept of "global iconic events." I define global iconic events as news events that are covered extensively and remembered ritually by international media. I suggest five narrative aspects to consider in connection with them: (1) their narrative prerequisites; (2) their elevated and interpretative story; (3) their condensation into a simple phrase, a short narrative, and a recognizable visual scene; (4) their competing stories; and (5) their ability to travel across multiple media platforms and changing social and political contexts.

I perform textual analysis on media representations from four distinct national contexts (West German, East German, Hungarian, and American) to examine two case studies. With the help of the central case study, the "fall of the Berlin Wall," I exhibit the successful social construction of a global iconic event. The second case study, the 1956 Hungarian revolution, illuminates some factors, in particular local counter-narration, incoherent and contextual international representation, forgetting, and marginality of the event's location, as instrumental in the failure of an event to become a global iconic event.

While the East German border opening on November 9, 1989 was unintentional, confusing, and messy, its global message is not about "luck" or "accident" in history. Incarnated as a global iconic event, the fall of the Berlin Wall has come to communicate the momentary power that the otherwise hopelessly vulnerable individual can have. The event's elevated and interpretative story, condensed into a simple phrase, a short narrative and a recognizable visual scene, provides global civil society with a contemporary social myth. Through recycling, reenactment, possession, memorialization and other embodiments, the event's simple and universal story continues to travel successfully through time, space, and media, inspiring people in various parts of the world.

In conclusion, I emphasize that when we examine the social construction of global iconic events, the stakes are high. I hope that this piece of academic writing will help us understand how powerful stories of events might shape the lives of those generations who come after us all over the world. Because in the end, after common currencies, military alliances, and international courts have failed, stories may well be all we have left to bring hope and unity.