The Tow Center for Digital Journalism has selected SC&I Ph.D. Candidate Christoph Mergerson and alumna Qun Wang, Ph.D. ’20, a faculty member at Fordham University, as 2020 Knight News Innovation Fellows.
Mergerson, whose research focus is on journalism and public policy, said the fellowship will help him “understand how nonprofit news media might better serve populations who have historically been neglected by commercial news outlets” with a particular focus on their reporting during the pandemic.
Wang said while she studied Google and its news aggregation service for her doctoral dissertation at SC&I, her Tow Center project will add a new dimension to her dissertation work with a focus on Google’s video search and how it interacts with television news during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Each Tow Fellow focuses on a research project, and Mergerson’s is “The South and the Promise of Nonprofit News: Making News for Everyone.”
“Black and Hispanic people in the U.S. have not been as well-served by for-profit media as white people, and lower-income people have not been as well-served as people with higher incomes,” Mergerson said. “Other scholars have studied the possibility that nonprofit news media might better serve neglected communities by focusing on stories that commercial outlets do not. So, I want to build on that work by studying whether there are differences in how journalists with commercial and nonprofit news organizations define their commitments to serve marginalized communities--if they have these commitments--and how they put those commitments into practice while covering the pandemic.”
Through this project, Mergerson said, he will “focus on news outlets located in four cities in the Southern United States because the South has a very high population of Black, Hispanic, and lower-income Americans, and these Americans deserve to have access to news that is relevant to their needs and interests. The cities I am focusing on include Austin, Texas; New Orleans, Louisiana; Jackson, Mississippi; and Charlottesville, Virginia. While I would like to travel to these cities personally -- especially New Orleans, which is one of my favorite cities -- the pandemic has made that impractical, for now. I’ll interview people remotely.”
Already inspired by the work of other Tow fellows, Mergerson said these include “Magda Konieczna, a journalism professor at Temple University who has written a brilliant book, ‘Journalism Without Profit,’ that has inspired a lot of my thinking. Andrea Wenzel, who is also a journalism professor at Temple, is another Tow fellow who has also produced great scholarship about how journalism can serve local communities. It’s an honor to be included in a fellowship program with scholars such as these.”
The research questions for his Tow Center project are closely related to some of his dissertation research questions, so he expects that a lot of what he learns from these two projects will overlap. “I would like to thank my dissertation committee for pushing to think more critically about my research,” Mergerson said. His committee members are Professors Susan Keith, Khadijah White, Lauren Feldman from SC&I; Victor Pickard from the University of Pennsylvania; and Phil Napoli from Duke University.
While he initially learned about the fellowship through a workshop he attended during the summer of 2019 at the Tow Center, Mergerson said during the fellowship application process he benefitted from the advice he received. “I would like to thank Professor Chris Anderson at the University of Leeds, and Pete Brown and Katie Johnston at the Tow Center for inviting me to participate in the workshop. I would also like to thank the Tow fellows who offered me advice on how to produce a competitive application, including Professors Andrea Wenzel and Matthew Weber.”
By the end of the fellowship, during the summer of 2021, Mergerson said he will submit a final report to the Tow Center and write a blog post for Columbia Journalism Review that synthesizes his findings. He said he also hopes to attend and participate in talks and events hosted by the Tow Center and get to know other Tow fellows and learn about their work.
Qun Wang, who earned her Ph.D. from SC&I this year, is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication and Media Studies at Fordham University. Her award-winning dissertation was titled “Normalization and Differentiation in Google News: A Multi-method Analysis of the World’s Largest News Aggregator.”
Wang’s project as a Tow Fellow is titled “Video Algorithm and Television News During COVID-19: A Case Study of Google’s Video Search.”
In a description of her project, Wang wrote, “the Television news has been an understudied area when media scholars investigate news media’s digital transformation. In the rapidly changing media environment, however, television news remains the most popular source for news in the United States. At the same time, with the rise of digital platforms that use algorithms to distribute video content automatically, television news is facing profound challenges and opportunities. The COVID-19 pandemic provides a timely opportunity to examine the encounter of video algorithm and television news. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the increased attention to television news and the growth of online streaming have enabled television news producers to explore digital opportunities. Given the strong influence that Google has on media content’s online visibility, this study focuses on Google’s video search to explore factors that affect Google’s video algorithm and television news’ performance in Google’s video algorithm system. Using Google as a case study and the COVID-19 pandemic as a unique opportunity, this study aims to make contributions to better understand the workings of video algorithm and explore what television news could learn about the algorithmic environment in order to diversify its distribution channels and enhance its public service role in the digital age, especially in times of crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic."
“I very much appreciate this opportunity as I used to work in the TV industry for many years as a journalist, news anchor, and news director, and hope to use this project to explore the changing media environment from the perspective of television news.” Wang said. “How COVID-19 is impacting journalism is one of the topics the Tow center fellowship program supports this year. As a journalist-turned-scholar, I believe this is an important time to reflect on the role of journalism as well as the challenges and opportunities facing journalism. I look forward to joining the fellows and learning from them about these important topics.”