Ph.D. Student Work | Columbia Journalism School

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.

 

The City as Data Machine: Local Governance in the Age of Big Data

Burcu Baykurt, 2019

This dissertation is a study of the social dimensions and implications of the smart city, a new kind of urbanism that augments the city’s existing infrastructures with sensors, wireless communication, and software algorithms to generate unprecedented reams of real-time data. It investigates how smartness reshapes civic ties, and transforms the ways of seeing and governing urban centers long-plagued by racial and economic divides. How do the uneven adoption of smart technologies and data-driven practices affect the relationship between citizens and local government? What mediates the understanding and experience of urban inequalities in a data-driven city? In what ways does data-driven local governance address or exacerbate pervasive divides? The dissertation addresses these questions through three years of ethnographic fieldwork in Kansas City, where residents and public officials have partnered with Google and Cisco to test a gigabit internet service and a smart city program respectively.

I show that the foray of tech companies into cities not only changes how urban problems are identified, but also reproduces civic divides. Young, middle-class, white residents embrace the smart city with the goal of turning the city’s problems into an economic opportunity, while already-vulnerable residents are reluctant to adopt what they perceive as surveillance technologies. This divide widens when data-driven practices of the smart city compel public officials and entrepreneurial residents to feign deliberate ignorance against longstanding issues and familiar solutions, or explore spurious connections between different datasets due to their assumptions about how creative breakthroughs surface in the smart city. These enthusiasts hope to discover connections they did not know existed, but their practices perpetuate existing stereotypes and miss underlying patterns in urban inequalities.

By teasing out the intertwined relationships among tech giants, federal/local governments, local entrepreneurial groups, civic tech organizations, and nonprofits, this research demonstrates how the interests and cultural techniques of the contemporary tech industry seep into age-old practices of classification, record keeping, and commensuration in governance. I find that while these new modes of knowledge production in local government restructure the ways public officials and various publics see the city, seeing like a city also shapes the possibilities and limits of governing by data.

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. =

The Cultural Contradictions of Cryptography: A History of Secret Codes in Modern America

Charles Berret, 2018

This dissertation examines the origins of political and scientific commitments that currently frame cryptography, the study of secret codes, arguing that these commitments took shape over the course of the twentieth century. Looking back to the nineteenth century, cryptography was rarely practiced systematically, let alone scientifically, nor was it the contentious political subject it has become in the digital age. Beginning with the rise of computational cryptography in the first half of the twentieth century, this history identifies a quarter-century gap beginning in the late 1940s, when cryptography research was classified and tightly controlled in the US. Observing the reemergence of open research in cryptography in the early 1970s, a course of events that was directly opposed by many members of the US intelligence community, a wave of political scandals unrelated to cryptography during the Nixon years also made the secrecy surrounding cryptography appear untenable, weakening the official capacity to enforce this classification. Today, the subject of cryptography remains highly political and adversarial, with many proponents gripped by the conviction that widespread access to strong cryptography is necessary for a free society in the digital age, while opponents contend that strong cryptography in fact presents a danger to society and the rule of law.’

I argue that cryptography would not have become invested with these deep political commitments if it had not been suppressed in research and the media during the postwar years. The greater the force exerted to dissuade writers and scientists from studying cryptography, the more the subject became wrapped in an aura of civil disobedience and public need. These positive political investments in cryptography have since become widely accepted among many civil libertarians, transparency activists, journalists, and computer scientists who treat cryptography as an essential instrument for maintaining a free and open society in the digital age. Likewise, even as opponents of widespread access to strong cryptography have conceded considerable ground in recent decades, their opposition is grounded in many of the same principles that defined their stance during cryptography’s public reemergence in the 1970s. Studying this critical historical moment reveals not only the origins of cryptography’s current politics, but also the political origins of modern cryptography.

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

Published in 2019 by Oxford University Press as Your Country, Our War: The Press and Diplomacy in Afghanistan

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.

The Parrot and the Cannon: Journalism, Literature and Politics in the Formation of Latin American Identities

Published in 2019 by the University of Pittsburgh Press as Latin American Adventures in Literary Journalism

Pablo Calvi, 2011

The Parrot and the Cannon. Journalism, Literature and Politics in the Formation of Latin American Identities explores the emergence of literary journalism in Latin America as a central aspect in the formation of national identities. Focusing on five periods in Latin American history from the post-colonial times until the 1960s, it follows the evolution of this narrative genre in parallel with the consolidation of professional journalism, the modern Latin American mass media and the formation of nation states. In the process, this dissertation also studies literary journalism as a genre, as a professional practice, and most importantly as a political instrument. By exploring the connections between journalism, literature and politics, this dissertation also illustrates the difference between the notions of factuality, reality and journalistic truth as conceived in Latin America and the United States, while describing the origins of Latin American militant journalism as a social-historical formation.

How Digital Television is Colonizing Indonesia

Diani Citra, 2019

Indonesian broadcasters are less than enthused about switching from an analog signal to digital terrestrial television (DTT). The nation's telecommunications industry appears mostly indifferent, consumers are reluctant to spend money on the necessary new equipment, and electronics producers are pessimistic about the new market. Despite the fact that few stakeholders are in support of this transition, the Indonesian government is moving forward on DTT. Why could this be?

Indonesia is the largest archipelago in the world, with more than 16,000 islands and a diverse geography that complicates the implementation of new broadcast and telecommunications infrastructure. By taking it as a case study, this project explains why, despite broad national ambivalence, high costs, and uncertain benefits, a developing country might still find itself accepting an externally imposed standard.

Primary research questions include: What incentivizes nations to accept new technological standards when domestic enthusiasm is sparse? How do foreign interests and a fear of isolation from an "inevitable" global technofuture reshape civic priorities? Which segments of society are legitimized in this process, and which are ignored?

The processes at play are nuanced. Building on the scholarship of Grewal (2008), this dissertation contends that Indonesia's decision to transition to DTT is understood as neither entirely voluntary nor entirely coerced. Rather, it is the result of a complex web of power plays and rhetorical frames. International bodies seek to impose a universal broadcast standard even in countries where it is counterproductive as certain domestic corporations attempt to influence the process in order to maintain and consolidate their dominance. At the same time, prevailing narratives of "necessity" and "inevitability" obscure policy choices better suited to the Indonesian situation, and hide the reality that DTT is not only a technological issue, but a social one as well.

Playing with Virtual Reality: Early Adopters of Commercial Immersive Technology

Maxwell Foxman, 2018

This dissertation examines early adopters of mass-marketed Virtual Reality (VR), as well as other immersive technologies, and the playful processes by which they incorporate the devices into their lives within New York City. Starting in 2016, relatively inexpensive head-mounted displays (HMDs) began to be manufactured and distributed by leaders in the game and information technology industries. However, even before these releases, developers and content creators were testing the devices through “development kits.” These de facto early adopters, who are distinctly commercially-oriented, acted as a launching point for the dissertation to scrutinize how, why and in what ways digital technologies spread to the wider public.

 

Taking a multimethod approach that combines semi-structured interviews, two years of participant observation, media discourse analysis and autoethnography, the dissertation details a moment in the diffusion of an innovation and how publicity, social forces and industry influence adoption. This includes studying the media ecosystem which promotes and sustains VR, the role of New York City in framing opportunities and barriers for new users, and a description of meetups as important communities where devotees congregate.

With Game Studies as a backdrop for analysis, the dissertation posits that the blurry relationship between labor and play held by most enthusiasts sustains the process of VR adoption. Their “playbor” colors not only the rhetoric and the focus of meetups, but also the activities, designs, and, most importantly, the financial and personal expenditures they put forth. Ultimately, play shapes the system of production by which adopters of commercial VR are introduced to the technology and, eventually, weave it into their lives. Situating play at the center of this system highlights that the assimilation of digital media is in part an embodied and irrational experience. It also suggests new models by which future innovations will spread to the public.

The Digital Public Square: Understanding the Dynamics of Data, Platforms, and News

Thomas Glaisyer, 2019

This dissertation examines the nature of the American digital public square in the 2010’s, a place where people learn about and come together to discuss matters of public concern. The newly digital public square is a key component of any functional democracy in the twenty-first century. The dissertation seeks to shed light, not only on the capacities of today’s news media institutions to produce and efficaciously distribute news and information and support a capacity for discussion and deliberation that provides a “public intelligence” on matters of concern, but also on the newly enlarged role of the public in new rituals of digestion of such news.

The work draws upon multiple systems-focused analyses of the public square, interviews, and analyses of news production, the economics and dynamics facing those who both produce and distribute news, and the broader literature about and studies of the public square.

Despite the manifest uncertainty regarding how journalism will be supported and the success of a politics where rhetoric is often untethered to the truth, a temptation still exists to see the changes to the public square in a piecemeal fashion and to assume the institutions, business models, and practices of the future will be minor modifications on or variations of the past. Much scholarship concludes that the patterns of decay and growth in this area will eventually generate equilibria in terms of press freedom, news production, news distribution, and engagement that are familiar, no less efficacious than, and only marginally distinct from those of the latter half of the twentieth century.

In contrast, this dissertation argues that the combination of forces acting upon the digital public square and its emergent dynamics in the late 2010s means it is already functioning in a qualitatively different manner than the largely analogue public square of the past and, as structured, it is increasingly failing to serve individuals, groups, communities, the public writ large, and most importantly our democratic processes. This argument is built on insights from my nearly a decade of work in the media reform community—specifically, from three systems analyses I developed leading the Public Square Program at the Democracy Fund of the dynamics surrounding civic engagement and the production of local news, the dynamics of audience attention, and public trust and press freedom. After making the case for the difference that already exists, the dissertation argues that, without engagement of a wide range of actors (civic, political, and commercial) in support of much-needed changes to institutions, along with policies that will support a renewal of civic media and a focus on new practices more appropriate for the rituals of the digitally and data-infused world we live in, it is entirely possible the public square will fail to adequately support democratic ends. The dissertation concludes with recommendations to avoid this outcome.

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. 

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

Published in 2018 by Routledge as Government Surveillance of Religious Expression: Mormons, Quakers, and Muslims 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.