In addition to my dissertation, a description of which can be found on a separate tab, below you can find brief descriptions and abstracts of research projects I have recently completed or am currently conducting.
Professional Boundaries and Claims to Authority in the News Media Field
How do different news media content producers claim authority online? In order to address this question I conducted an analysis of thirty prominent political blog sites during the month of October 2012. During this month, I collected all present blogger biographies on each site. In order to do this I searched each of the 28,963 posts on these thirty sites to determine if any biographical information was provided by a blogger. Adding a comparative framework, I collected digital biographies from two legacy newspapers during the same month. In the end, I collected, coded, and analyzed the biographical blurbs of 1,546 news media content producers represented by these posts and articles. The main focus of this paper is whether or not claims to authority were narrated through professionalization or personalization. Within these overarching categories, I developed a narrative typology of authority claim logics. Under the category of professionalization are journalistic logics, business logics, academic logics, legal logics, and political logics. Each of these deeply routinized claims to authority are based on institutionally recognized credentials. While there are subtle differences between the symbols of distinction utilized by traditional journalists and political bloggers, professional authority claim logics deploy the rhetorical technique of critical distancing. Alternatively, under the category of personalization are citizen logics. Citizen logics are defined through a de-professionalization in which authors claim authority through personal experience. This claim to authority is narrated through a more diverse set of rhetorical techniques including humor, outrage, and leveling. Through this analysis we can correlate political ideology and institutional affiliation with the use of different and particular authority logics. By analyzing these biographical blurbs we glean insight into the necessary cultural work enacted within the digital political news media field during a time of professional boundary liminality.
This research, which coincides with a manuscript under review, will be followed up with a comparison of the October 2016 data, in which I will compare the change, or lack thereof, in claims to authority in the news media field over these four years. In this way I can more clearly map out the structural and cultural dynamics of the online media field. I am also following the careers of a theoretical and random sample of the media content producers under analysis from the 2012 data. This will provide further insight into the process of professionalization in online political media content, as well as bring the dynamics of boundary making further into focus.
Political Performance and Authenticity: The Social Construction of Political Gaffes
How do political gaffes gain salience? Political campaigns require constant performance from politicians. This presents ample opportunity for the occurrence of political gaffes. While it is not surprising that political gaffes can have a major impact on political campaigns, the process by which a gaffe is transformed into a meaning-laden defining campaign event is underanalyzed. To address this, Cynthia J. Board and I, analyze and reconstruct the media trajectory of three instances, two involving Senate candidates (George Allen and Todd Akin) and one a presidential candidate (Mitt Romney), in which gaffes were constructed into meaning-laden events. We find that constructing a political gaffe as a meaning-laden event is a deeply social process. Our research highlights the impact of sousveillance (surveillance from below) and the difficulty that political performers have maintaining consistent “authentic” performances. Recounting the trajectories of these three gaffes allows for a detailing of the diverse methods by which the hybrid media system was effectively mobilized by “carrier agents” (actors with narrative capacity and media know-how). Further, we find that these gaffes proved particularly salient because they were interpreted as embodying an authentic representation of the candidate while simultaneously violating emergent norms of inclusive democratic public discourse.
This research, which has just recently been published in Sociological Forum, is being followed up by another project specifically focused on the 2016 election and Donald J. Trump. This research attempts to answer the following critical questions: what sorts of mediated performances induce a perception of authenticity? How does political authenticity connect to the process of gaffe making?
In order to answer these questions I have analyzed a sampling of pivotal media events surrounding Trump’s campaign. I analyze Trump’s performances at rallies and in interviews, a myriad of media coverage (represented in legacy newspapers, political cable television programs, and political blogs), as well as Trump’s own Twitter account. The preliminary research has demonstrated that there is a crucial binary harnessed by Trump between ‘politician’ and ‘authentic’. As a point of comparison, this is not a new campaign message; the narrative of the “political outsider” has been historically and successfully deployed by a variety of politicians. However, it would seem, and a number of media outlets make this argument, that Trump is able to “get away with” saying things which other politicians cannot and have not. Trump is able to deploy a discourse rife with anti-democratic messages precisely because he has successfully narrated himself on the authentic side of this binary. Previous politician’s problematic statements or comments were quickly constructed as gaffes or missteps and resulted in apology. In Trump’s case, however, he is consistently campaigning through a narrative of distance from traditional politics, which includes demonizing the media and the party establishment, and thus never apologizes, and is deemed as authentic by a large constituency of voters.
War Casualties and the Media
Why has support for casualties in foreign wars declined in the United States since Vietnam? We compare the very different depictions by The New York Times of war deaths in the Vietnam and Iraq wars. Then we offer an explanation for why there has been this fundamental transformation in the ways in which American war dead are regarded and valued. We find the change in retrospective interpretations of the war and in memorials to the Vietnam dead after that war ended rather than in public evaluations of U.S. geopolitical interests or prospects for victory in either Vietnam or Iraq. We trace the deepening personalization of war dead to specific political and cultural events within the United States rather than positing a general change in Western attitudes toward death and war. We conclude by speculating on the implications of that change for future wars and propose a research agenda to extend our findings to other countries that have fought wars in recent decades.
Utilizing the data collected and coded for this project, Richard Lachmann and I will continue to compare the reporting of casualties across a myriad of wars.