Welcome! I’m Jessica Pettengill, a second-year Ph.D. student in the Information and Media program in the School of Journalism. My journey to a Ph.D. and the CHI fellowship began in 2019 while I was an assignment editor at a broadcast station in my hometown of Sacramento, California. It was my first paying job in the field after graduating with my bachelor’s degree in journalism and master’s degree in design thinking and transmedia from Ball State University.
I had been working at the station for a little more than two years and in that time I had witnessed things I could never have prepared for: fatal police violence, devastating wildfires, and an endless string of traumatic experiences for people in the community I grew up in. These were things they didn’t teach me in J school. Perhaps I should have expected to witness these things, but I didn’t expect the ways that journalism would fail the people of the community it aimed to serve. It wasn’t that things we as the news would print or broadcast were incorrect or false, but it was the ways that journalism seemed to serve two contrasting purposes: the role of storytelling authority of the events that happen and that as an institution of detached observation. One suggests that journalism plays some sort of grander purpose in a community, while the other suggests that it is separated from those it tells stories about.
My perception of my experience in journalism may seem like perhaps an unfair critique of the centuries-old institution, but the reason I am so critical is that I care so deeply about what journalism can be. I followed these questions I began asking myself as a 24-year-old journalist through many spaces where I tried to find answers and eventually found myself applying to Ph.D. programs that wanted to think about journalism in the ways I did.
As a graduate student, my research now mainly revolves around a primary question: What is the purpose of journalism in a society constantly experiencing crisis? I study things such as how marginalized journalists use first-person storytelling to discuss social justice issues. Or how different subcultures of journalism exist in opposition to American journalism’s objectivity paradigm. And how digital interactivity affects user-experience of non-fictional stories.
In the CHI fellowship, we talk a lot about what constitutes cultural heritage. These definitions are well-established in the discipline of anthropology. Cultural heritage can include the beliefs, artifacts, traditions, and spaces that shape and inspire a people. Where might journalism fit within this concept? Journalism is a production of a society, definitely. But it also becomes a documentation of the beliefs, traditions, and events that happen. Journalism, as with all communication, is culture, an idea pioneered by renowned communications theorist James Carey.
As former Washington Post president and editor Phillip Graham said, “Journalism is the first rough draft of history.” But it is more than that as well. Journalism has an opportunity in its in-betweenness to be more than just a documentation of events, it can be a vessel for cultural heritage. It’s through this connection between journalism and cultural heritage that I hope to explore through this fellowship (while learning a few of the technical tricks of informatics and digital tools along the way).