Glam Grads: Anita Varma on journalism and solidarity

July 6, 2016, 1:00 a.m.
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(Courtesy of Anita Varma)

In this edition of Glam Grads, The Daily talked with communication Ph.D. candidate Anita Varma M.A. ’15 about her research interests in journalism studies and communication theory under Theodore Glasser, professor of communication. Varma earned her undergraduate degree in media studies from Vassar College and went on to work for Google before arriving at Stanford for her Ph.D. and master’s. Varma’s current research involves the connection between American journalism and solidarity.

The Stanford Daily (TSD): Tell me about your research.

Anita Varma (AV): I’ve been working on my dissertation the past year about the connection between American journalism and solidarity. [June 29] is a particularly interesting day for that case because [that’s when] a bunch of San Francisco and national news outlets are collaborating about. The SF Chronicle has been doing a lot of what they’re calling solutions journalism, where not only are they covering the issue of homelessness in San Francisco, but [they’re] also suggesting or trying to explore ways to address it. That’s one of the cases that I’m looking at now as part of my research, but my overall frame is interested in how media, such as journalism, exerts power by creating a sense that we share, oftentimes, [a sense of] what seems normal … versus what seems [like] a problem and needs to have something done about it.

[American journalism and solidarity] seem kind of unrelated, because when we think about American journalism, a lot of people would think about impartial coverage … and with solidarity, we immediately think of the opposite … particularly in the past three or four years, when there’s coverage of anything from terror attacks to natural disasters to local issues, particularly Black Lives Matter, Ferguson, Baltimore — these are issues where journalists seem, in some cases, inclined to either explicitly or implicitly suggest solidarity with a set of victims.

Throughout my educational work in this past year, it’s clear that there’s a lot of historical precedence for this, but that said, I don’t want to talk about journalism as if it’s a unitary thing, because so many news outlets are doing different things. That’s my main interest right now — the connection between American journalism and solidarity when solidarity is understood as a form of power.

TSD: How is the media constructing our culture in America?

AV: I was just looking at coverage of transgender youth and five years ago, or even less than that, there would’ve been little to no coverage, but now there seems to be a lot more positive coverage of these endeavors, and I think that’s what makes me hopeful about the media’s role in American culture and elsewhere, in constructing a reality where people or communities that are often pushed to the sidelines can enter on their own terms.

The media plays an increasing role, but I also think that it’s increasingly hard to separate out what is media and what is our “real life” when those two are so intertwined. I think the American case is one where it’s a great privilege to have so much media access… But so many Americans have constant connections and such constant inundations that I think some of the negative implications can be more readily seen as well.

TSD: How much power does the media really have in this generation?

AV: I can’t think of anything more powerful, which sounds disturbing on some levels, but there was a time when the answer was that, well, the media has one role, politicians have another role and family [has] another role. I think that increasingly, a politician doesn’t have the chance, reasonably, to be accepted to run for office unless they’re able to either get free media coverage or pay for getting their ads out, getting their message across. I think if there was a time when they could stick to public events, that time really passed — thus the need to rely on digital presence. And I think that [regarding] the family unit as well, parents are increasingly needing to rely on … media outlets as kids at earlier and earlier ages are starting to socialize on those platforms.

TSD:How did your interest in communication and the media develop?

AV: In sixth grade I decided that I very much wanted to be a journalist … so after that, I pursued student journalism in high school and college. I think that during my college years, I started to get more interested in the theories and the underlying values that are shaping how journalism gets done; that’s when I shifted from being more on the practice side towards more studying it on a theoretical level. But in between, I was fortunate to have some time to intern at The New Yorker, and I also worked at Google, so seeing how the concept of media has changed over the years has also increased my interest progressively.

TSD: What was it like transitioning from being on one of side of the issue as the journalist to analyzing the underlying dynamics?

AV: I think that in academia, there are many skills that overlap with skills in journalism: being able to explain an unfamiliar topic, being able to make clear why something is meaningful and [translating that] over in a teaching context. I’ve been [teaching] at Stanford several years now, so that has been a natural and organic shift. The case that made me really interested in understanding and analyzing news media was Hurricane Katrina coverage — that’s what I wrote my senior thesis about, many years ago — and thinking about how coverage on something like natural disasters persistently has underlying politics: who gets construed as a victim, who’s to blame for what people experience, who’s held accountable and how the press participates in holding others and itself accountable.

TSD: What have you enjoyed the most so far in your time at Stanford?

AV:I would say, definitely Stanford undergrads are completely fun to talk to and thoughtful and really interesting, so that’s really great being their TA, and hopefully they’ve enjoyed having me as their TA. I’m from the East Coast, and after that I worked in Michigan, so the weather obviously — it’s hard to beat that.

This transcript has been lightly edited and condensed.


Contact Andrea Schlitt at a.schlitt88 ‘at’

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