Is the news media in the Southern United States producing racially inclusive, public-service journalism? Exploring this question is the research focus of Christoph Mergerson Ph.D. ‘22.
A scholar who focuses on race, media, and democracy, and journalism history, Mergerson is an assistant professor at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.
“My work,” Mergerson said, “is predicated on the notion that journalism, in the United States in particular, has a responsibility to produce public service journalism that enables everyone to effectively advocate for their needs and interests in our democratic system of governance. If journalism isn’t living up to that responsibility—if it’s poorly serving, or excluding, or even harming Black, Latino, LGBTQ, and other historically neglected communities—then that isn’t good if we value social equity and democracy. So, my work interrogates whether journalism is living up to its responsibility.”
Below, read SC&I’s interview with Mergerson about his research and teaching at the University of Maryland, and his advice for anyone considering pursuing a Ph.D., and Ph.D. candidates who will soon enter the job market.
SC&I: How did the Ph.D. program in Communication, Information and Media equip you with the skills and tenacity to conduct research at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism?
CM: I took an array of courses that prepared me for a career as a researcher. I studied qualitative methods with Jeff Lane, quantitative methods with Lauren Feldman, computational methods with Katya Ognyanova, and research design with Vikki Katz (who is now at Chapman University in California). I also enrolled in a month-long quantitative methods summer intensive at the University of Michigan. These experiences collectively provided a foundation for additional learning and practice.
SC&I: Your SC&I dissertation compared how commercial and nonprofit news media are producing racially inclusive public service journalism in the Southern United States. How does your research influence your approach to teaching courses at Maryland?
CM: My work is predicated on the notion that journalism, in the United States in particular, has a responsibility to produce public service journalism that enables everyone to effectively advocate for their needs and interests in our democratic system of governance. If journalism isn’t living up to that responsibility—if it’s poorly serving, or excluding or even harming Black, Latino, LGBTQ, and other historically neglected communities—then that isn’t good if we value social equity and democracy. So, my work interrogates whether journalism is living up to its responsibility.
So when I’m teaching students about the history of journalism, I want them to understand how news organizations in the United States have served, or misrepresented, or excluded, or harmed Black, Latino, Asian, and Indigenous communities. I want them to learn about the experiences of women in journalism, and how journalism has served or failed LGBTQ communities. I want them to learn from the errors of the past so that they’re equipped to be the leaders of a better present and future. I also want them to be inspired and understand that they belong in this profession, regardless of their identity.
And when I’m teaching students about journalism law and ethics, we talk about the problematic concept of objectivity and how it relates to the obligation of news organizations to produce journalism that is fair, accurate, and thorough—which is literally how the Society of Professional Journalists defines 'ethical journalism.' We talk about who tends to be included or excluded when news organizations define objectivity and how it should be enforced, and how journalists from different backgrounds have pushed back against definitions that tend to discount the perspectives and lived experiences of journalists who aren’t heterosexual, Christian White men. Again, I want students to learn about this so that they can add their critical voices to the profession.
SC&I: What is some advice you received at SC&I, Rutgers, or elsewhere that has served you well and/or advice you'd like to share with current or prospective SC&I students about how to succeed at Rutgers and professionally?
CM: My dissertation advisor, Susan Keith, and my dissertation committee of Khadijah White, Lauren Feldman, Phil Napoli* from Duke University, and Victor Pickard from the University of Pennsylvania, gave me critical advice about how to be a professional throughout my time at Rutgers—as did Regina Marchi from my qualifying exams committee. Here’s a little of what I learned from them and what I learned through my own experiences in the program.
My advice for Ph.D. students is to have a strong sense of purpose and direction from the first day of your program. I’m not saying that you need to have your dissertation topic figured out on day one, but having a strong sense of what you want to accomplish in general and what your career goals are, is critical. That helps to ensure that everything you do is aligned with your goals and helps you to say no to things that will drag you significantly off course. If you’re having trouble narrowing down your interests, talking with professors whose work you admire can be helpful. Conferences are valuable opportunities to meet and talk with professors from other schools.
That said, don’t become so regimented that you’re afraid to pursue an interesting tangent that will inform your work and add some color to your experience. Take an elective if it sounds like fun, even if it’s outside your primary area of focus. You might gain a new perspective. I didn’t plan to focus on technology and media per se, but John Pavlik’s Experiential Media course disrupted my understanding of journalism and challenged me to think about the impacts of technology on the profession. It also motivated me to attend an event on virtual reality and journalism in New York, where I developed professional relationships that I value to this day. But this might not have happened if I hadn’t taken a chance on John’s course as a first-year student.
My advice for Ph.D. candidates who are on the job market and want to work at a research university like Maryland is to be able to concisely explain your research trajectory for the first five years of a tenure-track job. Search committees want to know whether you have a compelling program of research beyond your dissertation and whether you can accomplish it by the time you’re up for tenure.
It’s also imperative to learn as much as you can about an institution before you apply. I spent several hours learning as much as I could about the journalism program at Merrill College and its faculty, staff, strategic vision, and values before I applied and was interviewed. Search committees expect that level of preparation and can tell if you haven’t done it.
Finally, learn how to market yourself and make yourself stand out. It’s not uncommon for search committees to get upwards of 100 or 150 applications for a tenure-track position, so marketing yourself is a critical skill.
*Napoli was formerly a faculty member and dean for research at SC&I.