USC Annenberg Alumni Magazine Spring/Summer 2020

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Bearing Witness

Telling powerful stories of trauma, loss and injustice can drive social change.


USC Annenberg Magazine

Reporting from Home Senior Melody Waintal, who graduated in May, was one of the nearly 400 students working in USC Annenberg’s Media Center when USC decided to finish the academic semester online due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Student journalists — including Waintal, editor of the Latinx-focused media outlet Dímelo — quickly adapted and continued to provide in-depth coverage while maintaining social distancing. With support from the faculty, adjunct instructors and staff who serve as coaches in the media center, students transformed their homes into newsrooms, using Zoom and other tools to interview experts and their fellow students about the impact of the coronavirus on the USC community and the world. Photo courtesy of Melody Waintal Spring/Summer 2020 3





Sabena Suri (BA, public relations, ’12) is co-founder of BOXFOX.

Bearing Witness

Telling powerful stories of trauma, loss and injustice can drive social change. By Ted B. Kissell


Behind the Curtain

We examine how our scholars and practitioners help shape and communicate the world of celebrity. By Mira Zimet


Female Forces

Three alumnae share their paths to realizing their entrepreneurial dreams and creating their own legacies. By Mira Zimet and Emily Cavalcanti





Reporting from Home Truth to Power

ON THE COVER Illustration by Mike McQuade


USC Annenberg Magazine







Photo courtesy of Sabena Suri

ASSOCIATE DEAN FOR COMMUNICATION AND MARKETING Emily Cavalcanti ASSOCIATE DEAN FOR DEVELOPMENT AND EXTERNAL RELATIONS Tracy Mendoza EDITOR-IN-CHIEF Mira Zimet MANAGING EDITOR Ted B. Kissell EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT Ashley Dawn Cooper DIRECTOR OF ALUMNI RELATIONS Leticia Lozoya GRAPHIC DESIGNER Suzanne Boretz DESIGN Pentagram CONTRIBUTING STAFF Mike Mauro Chief Digital Officer Rachelle Martin Digital Coordinator Olivia Mowry Digital Media Producer Jasmine Torres Special Events Coordinator USC ANNENBERG ADMINISTRATION Willow Bay Dean and Walter H. Annenberg Chair in Communication Hector Amaya Director, School of Communication Gordon Stables Director, School of Journalism USC ANNENBERG MAGAZINE Published twice a year by the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California. © 2020 USC Annenberg. The diverse opinions expressed in USC Annenberg Magazine do not necessarily represent the views of the editors, USC Annenberg administration or USC. USC Annenberg Magazine welcomes comments from its readers to magazine@usc. edu or USC Annenberg Magazine, 3502 Watt Way, G40, Los Angeles, CA 90089-0281.

Photo by Gus Ruelas

Truth to Power By Willow Bay Dean and Walter H. Annenberg Chair in Communication

“Radical change is what we need, but what does radical truly mean?” Hector Amaya, who recently began his new role as director of our School of Communication, posed this critical question to our faculty this summer. As we prepare to welcome our next generation of communicators in August, I am struck by the magnitude of considering what it means to be “radical” at this moment. What it means to bring our teaching, scholarship and practice to confront two pandemics: COVID-19 and racial injustice. Hector also reminded us that “radical” means “roots,” and roots grow where the nutrients are. And I find myself deeply grateful to be leading an academic community that provides such fertile ground for nurturing knowledge-based solutions to the challenges we face. Reporting on and analyzing networks of communication and community, while speaking truth to power, is what we do. And this has never been more important than right now, as we re-examine our culture, our politics, our economy, our health, and our very core values. In this issue, we share how our faculty and alumni are investigating the ways witnessing can drive change, shaping the way celebrities connect with the public, and leveraging their entrepreneurial skills to meet the shifting demands of these pandemics. Our students also continue to bring their passion, persistence and creativity to the work of social justice in general, and racial justice in particular, informing our perspectives in new and important ways. Their tireless coverage of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is among the many examples of their talent, skill and courage celebrated in this issue. These efforts show how communication and storytelling can unite us all as we chart our “radical” path forward — shining a light on both our best and worst selves, our triumphs and our tragedies, our individualism and our shared humanity.

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Counting on Generation Z

AnnLab gets young people involved in the 2020 Census. It was a chance conversation three years ago with the then-chief innovation officer at the U.S. Census Bureau that inspired Colin Maclay to reinvigorate the census with 21st-century thinking. “I immediately saw it as a digital transformation story,” said Maclay, research professor of communication. The census, first conducted in 1790, is run every 10 years across the United States and is critical to funding education, healthcare, schools, public safety — and determining congressional representation. “More than $1.5 trillion a year in federal funding flows into states and communities based on census results,” Maclay said. “And the folks who most need accurate census representation are the least likely to understand what the census is and why it’s relevant to them.” The Annenberg Innovation Lab (AnnLab), of which Maclay is the director, created the Count the Nation initiative to educate and inspire Gen Z to get involved in supporting the census. “It’s the most diverse generation; it’s the largest generation; and it’s a generation driving transformation on tough issues like climate change, gun violence and immigration,” said Maclay of why AnnLab focused on the generation born between 1997 and 2012. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Census Bureau has extended the deadline for the count. Social distancing requirements also make it harder for enumerators to go door-to-door. “Census data will help us to rebuild socially and economically, connecting local and national needs, and laying the foundation for an inclusive, empowering and dynamic future for all of us,” Maclay said.


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Skai Jackson — actress, YouTube influencer and author — participated in six census-themed public service announcements to engage with the Gen Z audience.

Count the Nation Black communities are historically discriminated against and disenfranchised, filling out the #2020Census is one easy way to fix the problem! @SLSVCoalition Thanks for challenging us @countthenation & @CampusVote Our team is going to be counted in the Census!   Los Angeles County Office of Education We’ve partnered with Count The Nation in launching a 2020 Census contest — a fun home school activity — with prizes! PLEASE SHARE with LA County high school students. @dpla It’s #CensusDay — remember to fill our your #2020census online or by phone! And check out @CountTheNation for fun related activities for kids, including this pirate census comic. @dacwru By participating in the census, you define your community, demonstrate how big and diverse this nation is, and ensure that your community has the representation and the resources needed. #StandUpBeCounted #CountTheNation

The Children’s Partnership #StandUpBeCounted spread the word, start the conversation and fill out the census in the safety of your own home at! #EverybodyCounts  @mrkylethomas I’m excited to announce that I, along with @chrissalvatore, @jazzmynejay, and @thesamtsui, was chosen by @CountTheNation to represent the American LGBT community in advocating for everyone to get involved in this year’s Census. Take 10 minutes today to fill out your census form! Don’t give away your power, money and representation!

Common Sense Latino ¡El Censo 2020 ya llegó! Mira cómo hacerte contar beneficiará a tus niños y a tu familia. #HágaseContar2020 @readynation #Children under 5 are the hardest to count every #census. This census, let’s count all #kids. #2020census #CountTheNation

Photo courtesy of Count the Nation

W H AT ’ S O N M Y P H O N E ?

Aaron Kirman

Leading Real Estate Agent in Los Angeles

At 6 years old, Aaron Kirman knew he wanted to be a real estate agent. When he was 8, he now says, he would walk through homes that were for sale, narrating their attributes as if he were the listing agent. “I grew up in a lower-middle-class household, but had a lot of wealthy friends growing up, and so I was able to see what the other side of life had to offer,” he said. Diagnosed with dyslexia at an early age, Kirman (BA, communication, ’04) struggled in school but wanted to attend USC to get the kind of strong education he would need to master his craft. Starting his career in the world of art, architecture and fashion, Kirman “met the right people” and segued into selling million-dollar and then later multimillion-dollar homes, representing “kings and queens, CEOs and celebrities,” he said. Kirman believes his success comes from being authentic and “telling people the way it is.” Earlier this year, Kirman was tapped to star in CNBC’s reality show Listing Impossible, in which he helps wealthy homeowners sell their difficult-to-sell extravagant mini-mansions. Kirman loves the “human side” of real estate. “Every house, every listing, has a story,” he said. “It’s a really competitive job: Sometimes I win and sometimes I lose, and I wanted all of those messages to be told.”


“Mr. Tambourine Man,” Bob Dylan “Africa,” Toto



Shark Tank (2009-Present) American Greed (2007-Present)


The Game of Life and How to Play It by Florence Scovel Shinn The Power of Your Subconscious Mind: Unlock the Secrets Within by Joseph Murphy

On Social

@aaronkirman No matter what economic situation you’re in, country or city you reside in — We are all in this together and we will arise out of this together. @CNBC LA real estate superstar @aaronkirman on the one thing home buyers overlook when making an offer.


@LuxuryConnect @LACMA @LoveBevHills @CNBC @Bravo

Photo by John Russo

@NYTimes @nightstandreads @Zillow @djcacawerneck @DJAronOfficial

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My personal philosophy is do the next job before you get it. MELISSA LASDON ’03 , (BA, COMMUNICATION AND BUSINESS), VICE PRESIDENT, SOFTLINES AND FRANCHISE, DISNEY


The only way you’re going to really see any kind of success is if you constantly step out of your comfort zone.


Mission-driven companies are fantastic to work for because they are not just focused on making money, they’re actually focused on solving something for the greater good. CALVIN YU, VERTICAL CLIENT SOLUTIONS MANAGER, FACEBOOK


Photos by Spencer Quinn, Yannick Peterhans; Illustration by Sean McCabe

Through the LUNCH WITH A LEADER series, USC Annenberg’s Career Development Office connects students with top leaders in the media, communications and entertainment industries. These experts share their career paths and provide guidance on how students can build their professional networks to leverage new opportunities.

We are in business to allow over a million creators to earn a living off of their art by connecting them with a billion users. That’s the core of the entire company.


Strengthening Connections

Top media studies scholar Hector Amaya leads the School of Communication. CHRISTINA COMPODONICO (MA, specialized journalism, ’15) was hired at the Argonaut as editor-in-chief.

JUDITH NWANDU (BA, journalism, ’18) was promoted to senior associate producer of TheShadeRoom. JOHN OCHOA (BA, public relations, ’08) started at the Recording Academy as an editor.

Dean Willow Bay has appointed Hector Amaya as director of the School of Communication, effective July 1. Amaya, a transnational media expert, examines the conceptual foundations of civic life — such as citizenship, publicity and openness — and how these are transformed by globalization, violence and new technologies. “Not only do we live in a changing world shaped by immigration, globalization and the demands for racial and ethnic justice, we also face the powers and limitations of communication technologies,” said Amaya, who joined USC Annenberg in 2019 as a professor of communication. “I am honored to direct the School of Communication because it represents the type of intellectual leadership needed to find clarity and purpose in these turbulent times.” “Professor Amaya’s work crosses borders — literally and figuratively,” Bay said. “Given his prior experience as a scholar and academic administrator, we know his agenda for the school will be innovative, expansive and forward-looking.”

Born and raised in Mexico, Hector Amaya is the second Latinx scholar to lead the School of Communication since its founding in 1971.

A HELPING HAND for USC Annenberg students When Manda Bwerevu (BA, communication, ’20) lost his on-campus job during his senior year because of the COVID-19 crisis, he struggled to cover his living expenses. “But I knew about USC Annenberg’s Student Emergency Aid Fund, which is set up to help students in my exact situation,” he said. Bwerevu is one of the many students who have received support for immediate needs, such as food insecurity, unforeseen travel expenses, emergency tuition, and technology upgrades required for remote learning. In 2018-19, the fund awarded more than $65,000 to 27 students in need. With the COVID-19 pandemic creating even more widespread need, it has so far awarded Photo by John Davis

more than $218,000 in 2019-20 — with $112,000 going to 56 students since March 1. Additionally, the university has created four new, campuswide funds for supporting the members of the Trojan Family who are facing unanticipated expenses: the USC Student Basic Needs Fund, the Keck Medicine of USC COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund, the USC Community Outreach Fund, and the USC Employee Support Fund. “I don’t know how I could have finished my senior year without this funding,” said Bwerevu, who has enrolled in law school at Columbia University for the Fall. “USC Annenberg has been incredibly supportive.”

MELISSA FARRAR (BA, journalism, ’07) started a new position as director of communications at Fairmont Austin.

ELI GOODSTEIN (BA, broadcast and digital journalism, ’17) joined CNN as associate producer, digital video news.

ALISSA GWYNN (BA, public relations, ’15) was hired as senior manager of culture program planning at Red Bull Media House. ANDREA MARTINEZ (BA, broadcast and digital journalism, ’14) was named host of Pulso News by Telemundo on Quibi.

MIRABELLA MCDOWELL (MA, specialized journalism (the arts), ’19) joined Group SJR as a social media associate.

JOY OFODU (BA, communication, ’18) was promoted to associate brand marketing manager at Instagram.

DREW SCHWENDIMAN (BA, broadcast and digital journalism, ’18) joined REFORM Alliance as their first social media strategist. SHAWNA THOMAS (MA, journalism, ’06) was hired as a content development executive at Quibi to develop short-form news programming for the mobile platform.

RAJA VENKATAPATHY (MCG, communication management, ’18) was hired at the United Nations Development Programme in New Delhi in digital media communications.

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Storytelling in the Age of Artificial Intelligence By Manuelita Maldonado In 2017, New Scientist published a story about how long it would take for artificial intelligence (AI) to surpass human intelligence. The article was shared through a tweet that read: “AI will be able to beat us at everything by 2060, say experts.” “Probably closer to 2030 to 2040 in my opinion, 2060 would be a linear extrapolation, but progress is exponential,” responded Tesla co-founder Elon Musk. What Musk didn’t know is that the initial tweet had been generated by Echobox, an AI-management tool that chose the article and shared it at a time that would maximize traffic for New Scientist’s website. Studies on how AI is affecting the world of communications have shown that this technology is helping PR practitioners monitor social media, identify industry trends and predict reputational crises. A study conducted by the Chartered Institute for Public Relations stated that 41% of the skills needed to practice public relations are currently supported by some form of AI. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Some researchers say that the automation of repetitive tasks will allow PR professionals to focus on innovation and creativity. But what if we automate our ability to tell stories? Will a machine be able to produce a narrative with the same thought and care that a communication professional can? Not necessarily — but AI can certainly help us create more meaningful stories. In recent years, AI models have become dramatically better at delivering human-like pieces of writing. In its first year, The Washington Post’s robot writer Heliograf produced about 850 articles, including 500 pieces about the 2016 election that generated more than 500,000 views. This is 75% more than what the Post’s staff generated in 2012. Other robots assisting the newsrooms are Forbes’ management system, Bertie; Bloomberg’s reporter, Cyborg; and the Wordsmith platform used by the Associated Press. These Illustration by Suzanne Boretz

AI-machines can report industry trends, corporate earnings and sports results in seconds. But they often follow the same format and offer little emotional pull. Recent language models like the “Neural Storyteller” developed by machine learning researchers Jamie Kiros and Samim Winiger, and Open AI’s “GPT-2” model offer a glimpse into a more exciting field: storytelling. These models have been trained on various sources, including Taylor Swift’s lyrics and romance novels. The results are hilarious — and sometimes nonsensical — works that depict what storytelling will look like in the future: challenging, experimental and fun. In 2017, MIT Media Lab and the global management consulting firm McKinsey & Company used machine learning to analyze the emotional arc of a movie and predict how engaging it would be. This breakthrough technology will soon “supercharge” storytellers to help them tell meaningful stories in an already-saturated digital world. Algorithms can efficiently extrapolate information from past creations and predict what stories will work and which ones will not. But they lag behind human creativity when it comes to original thinking. Machine learning algorithms rely on vast amounts of data to identify patterns but they can’t predict when these patterns will change, a crucial component of creative thinking. The element of surprise in storytelling still depends on our capacity, as communicators, to link an organization’s goals with enduring aspects of human nature. Our ability to tell stories will grow more dependent on AI tools that have the power to offer relevant insights we wouldn’t otherwise know. To thrive in the age of artificial intelligence, PR practitioners must cultivate our ability to understand this technology and embrace it as a creative partner that will help us connect with others in a more meaningful way. a

MANUELITA MALDONADO earned a master’s in strategic public relations in 2020. This essay was originally published in the USC Center for Public Relations’ 2020 Relevance Report, which identifies emerging issues and forecasts topics and trends impacting society, business and communications.

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Snapshots for Social Change

How Humans of New York created an activist community through participatory storytelling. By Paromita Sengupta

Street photographer Brandon Stanton started Humans of New York (HONY ) in 2009 with the aim of gathering 10,000 photographs of New Yorkers framed against an interactive map of the city. To put his subjects at ease, Stanton frequently made conversation with them and turned these snippets of conversation into captions for his photographs. The microstorytelling format and the lack of closure were an invitation to Stanton’s Facebook fan community to fill the gaps in the narratives and bring the stories to a satisfying conclusion. Between 2012 and 2017, HONY gradually transformed from a photography project to a pathway for civic intervention, taking its cue from the affective parasocial relationships cultivated by the fan community. In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, HONY and Tumblr teamed up to raise $100,000 in donations from the HONY fan community. The community has also come together to help subjects of Stanton’s photographs locate missing pets, find employment, prevent a local bakery from going bankrupt, and get pro bono legal counsel for immigration. These calls to action are spontaneously driven by an impulse to improve the conclusions of those stories through participatory efforts. HONY uses communal storytelling and fan advocacy to create an alternate template of political activism that moves away from organized groups and political mobilization and instead advances a form of social reform based on collaborative problem-solving and networks of affect. Stanton is part of a growing network of celebrities who encourage their fan communities to use affective labor practices to enact social change. However, HONY is an interesting case study of a civic fan community that has gone beyond its founder’s original political vision and created a version of the civic imagination that challenges, and even subverts, some of Stanton’s own assumptions. In 2016, USC Provost Professor Henry Jenkins defined the civic imagination as the belief that one cannot change the world unless one can imagine what a better world might look like. Put into action, the civic


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imagination encompasses a set of collaborative practices that encourage problem-solving and building social consciousness through the simple act of imagining better alternatives to the world’s contemporary social and political problems. Stanton’s original conception of Humans of New York was the impetus behind the creation of a novel form of the civic imagination centered on the practice of participatory storytelling and affective connections to imagine better conclusions to deliberately truncated narratives. While the community originally came together through their shared appreciation of Stanton’s photography, it gradually morphed into a space for critical discussion and collaborative action to imagine better alternatives for the subjects of stories that aroused feelings of sympathy and kinship. His fundraiser for the Mott Hall Bridges Academy raised $1.4 million to send three successive cohorts of sixth graders from local low-income families to a summer school program at Harvard University and even garnered a public platform from celebrity philanthropists like Ellen DeGeneres. These examples shed some light on the way Stanton imagines civic action through HONY. Although he clearly understands the potential of participatory action and storytelling in enacting social change, the actual participation of the HONY community is limited to raising money, creating awareness, and above all, generating a spirit of goodwill and kinship in the community. By reimagining the very nature of the civic imagination, these groups collaboratively develop new ways of thinking about the infrastructures of collective action by remixing resources and practices and developing social links with a larger collective. a This article is adapted from one of the essays in Popular Culture and the Civic Imagination: Case Studies in Creative Social Change (NYU Press), co-edited by Henry Jenkins, USC Provost Professor of Communication, Journalism, Cinematic Arts and Education. Paromita Sengupta earned her PhD in communication in May 2020.

Illustration by Doug Chayka


Nate Howard empowers youth through storytelling By Lynell George

Nate Howard asks people to reflect on both the most beautiful and the most challenging things about their lives in order to find their story.

Life changes in a blink — in the flash of a thought, or within the sweep of a gesture. Nate Howard, executive director of Movement BE, a San Diego-based nonprofit and online platform serving vulnerable youth, knows this truth all too well. In 2013, Howard was a senior studying communication at USC Annenberg. Four years about to be wrapped up in a neat bow: Courses completed, finals in the wings, then graduation. Howard remembers feeling proud, ready to pause and celebrate this milestone. He had planned a large party. Students arrived and the volume rose. “Everybody was throwing some type of celebration,” he notes, “but ours was mainly students of color.” What had been a celebration, in an instant shattered into something quite the opposite. Someone had called in a complaint about the “noise,” and suddenly a phalanx of police officers arrived in full riot gear to shut the party down. Ultimately six attendees were arrested, including Howard. “I just remember everything happening so fast,” he said. Howard and other attendees immediately took to social media, posting their version of what transpired. The press — local and national — seized on the story and covered the USC campus protest staged two days after the raid. An image of Howard made the front page of the Los Angeles Times. “In class, we were learning how to use technology and social media to build a movement. That’s where we came up with the hashtag #USChangemovement,” he explained. While he was not charged, the incident and its aftermath shook him to the core. The experience also underscored long-unvoiced feelings. “I was excited that someone wanted to tell our story, but I was also realizing that the consideration wasn’t always there. You are a student who was literally racially profiled, handcuffed and detained, and reporters were like: ‘We need the story!’ But as instantly as they need it, they are done with it.” That incident sparked an epiphany. Howard initially started exploring the idea of Movement BE (“BE” as in “Brave Entrepreneur”) through BE the Music, a show he created for the student-run television station, Trojan Vision. As the host, Howard interviewed performers about what inspired them. After the police incident, however, he shifted. He would use the model and the brand to help young people like him, who too often felt vulnerable, stereotyped, profiled and scapegoated. Whose stories were too often written by society’s prejudices or suspicions. After graduation, he connected with his old high school in San Diego and developed an after-school program called “BE the Voice.” The workshop became a safe space for students who felt overlooked or misunderstood. Howard would share his story and ask students to tell theirs, underscoring the power of what he calls “narrative therapy.” He pressed them to write from the heart, not to think about form or punctuation, but to drill deep. Attendance quickly grew from 15 to 40. “I realized that if students don’t have healthy minds and emotional maturity, they are not going to succeed academically,” he said. From these seeds, Howard kept refining Movement BE, growing his target audience to vulnerable youth outside his alma mater: students in the juvenile hall system, youth impacted by homelessness, or young people struggling with anxiety issues. By folding his communication skills and his curiosity about personal story arcs into his avid interest in poetry and spoken word, he had landed on a formula that would help coax those hidden stories to the surface: “Poetry could contain and express difficult truths,” he said. Howard always reminds his students: The outside world may attempt to put them in a box. People might try to limit their aspirations and sense of self. Movement BE hands the power back to them. “Instead of reinforcing or reacting to the story that is written for us, I say to youth: ‘Well, who is the author?’ You have the power to revise and edit your story, when you always have the pen.” a Photo by Sela Nunez

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BEARING WITNESS Telling powerful stories of trauma, loss and injustice can drive social change. B Y T E D B . K I S S E LL I LL U S T R AT I O N B Y M I K E M CQ UA D E

The world knows that George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer on May 25 because the crime was recorded on a smartphone. When the video footage became public, it sparked outrage and protest. Beginning in Minneapolis, then across the United States and around the world, hundreds of thousands of people called for an end to racism and police violence against the Black community. The throngs in the streets of cities and towns, large and small, were a testament to the power of the act of witnessing. Allissa Richardson, assistant professor of journalism and communication, has been one of the leading public voices on how smartphone videos have created so much momentum for change. “It’s been an incredible journey in terms of smartphone witnessing,” Richardson told ABC World News Now on June 2. “These kinds of videos actually lend credence and give proof to what many African Americans knew for a very long time: Police brutality is persistent in our society,” she said. “We now have the proof that we need to move the needle forward in conversations about that brutality.” Richardson has made bearing witness to violence against Black people central to both her research and practice. Her new book, Bearing Witness While Black: African Americans, Smartphones, and the New Protest #Journalism, released in May by Oxford University Press, struck an immediate chord with the public: By the second week of June, the paperback was sold out on Amazon.

Richardson’s unflinching commitment to sharing the Black community’s experiences with police brutality is just one of the ways USC Annenberg’s faculty, students and alumni are giving voice to those facing trauma and injustice. Whether it’s the Floyd protests, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, mass shootings, unjust incarceration, the drug war in Mexico, world hunger, or the plight of international refugees, they are using an expanding repertoire of tools and media platforms to bear witness to those experiences and push for positive change. “Bearing witness” is a term used by psychologists, who note that listening to and watching others recount their traumatic experiences can be key to recovery and healing. Richardson has made that concept central to her work ever since she took a class trip to a prison as a graduate student at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. “All I saw in there were men who looked like my brother or my dad,” said Richardson, who is Black. Richardson vowed right then that, whether as a journalist or a scholar, she would incorporate some kind of advocacy in her work. In 2010, while teaching at a historically Black college, Richardson saw the potential for mobile devices as storytelling tools, particularly for communities whose voices weren’t well represented in mainstream media. She taught her students to use iPhones and iPads for the first time to create news. The success of her initial Spring/Summer 2020 15

efforts led to invitations to lead mobile journalism programs in Morocco and South Africa. Going back to school to earn her PhD at the University of Maryland, Richardson began not only teaching and practicing mobile journalism, but also researching how it fit into a long tradition of witnessing in the African American community. The killing of Philando Castile, Richardson says, represented a “tipping point.” “I realized that, not only is mobile journalism essential for telling one’s story, but also, livestreaming specifically was going to become very important for citizen journalists to shine a light on problems with police brutality,” she said. In her book,Richardson explains how mobile storytelling — primarily by nonprofessional citizen journalists — allows the people targeted by police violence to build their own news networks and control their own narratives. Now that the smartphone recording of the killing of George Floyd has completely reshaped the narrative around police brutality, Richardson says she sees the potential for citizen journalism to have an even greater impact. “This moment is showing how professional journalists and citizen journalists can work together to create a complex, nuanced, complete story — and drive real, systemic change,” Richardson said. Richardson shares those lessons on witnessing with her students. Her “Engaging Diverse Communities” class, a required course in the undergraduate journalism program, challenges students to question their own assumptions about how stories about people different from them — demographically or politically — are told in the media. A key part of the final exam involves writing a profile of someone from an underrepresented community. “They actually investigate how the framing of the witnesses can differ from those of the mainstream media,” she said. “I teach them to understand that these witnesses are subject matter experts on their own lived experiences.” Richardson’s is one of several USC Annenberg courses that prepare students to connect with people who face traumatic events. One such course grew from a unique collaboration between USC Annenberg and the USC Shoah Foundation. Housed at USC since 1994, the Institute is dedicated to documenting and preserving Holocaust survivors’ memories through oral histories — in-depth video interviews — and building an extensive Visual History Archive. Rob Kuznia, then-coordinator of external relations for the Institute, conceived of the idea to apply this oral history model to capturing stories from survivors of mass shootings. He partnered with Mark Schoofs, visiting professor of journalism, to launch the course, “Documenting an American Tragedy: The Mass Shooting Oral History,” in Fall 2019. Students in the class had the chance to interview and film long-form documentaries with survivors of three mass shootings: San Bernardino (2015), Route 91 Harvest Festival in Las Vegas (2017), and the Borderline Bar and Grill in Thousand Oaks (2018). “This course brought students as close as they possibly could be to the reality of a mass shooting,” Schoofs said. “They sat down for a couple of hours with a person whose life has been shattered by gun violence. And they had to engage deeply with many of the intellectual aspects of mass shootings.” The course also offered students a chance to hear from guest speakers who had, in one way or another, borne witness to mass shootings. Dawn Megli, who earned a master’s degree in journalism in 2013, spoke to the class about her experiences covering the Borderline shooting, in which 12 people 16

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were killed. A reporter for the Thousand Oaks weekly newspaper, The Acorn, Megli not only covered the shooting as breaking news, she continued to write and report about its aftermath: the victims, their families, the survivors, their friends, the entire town suffering from loss. Her series, “Surviving Borderline,” includes dozens of articles chronicling loss, grief and survival. “I was aware that I was documenting a very particular and powerful moment in our city’s history,” she said. Schoofs and Kuznia emphasized that this was more than a class: The video recordings the students made will serve an important archival purpose, documenting the experiences of the survivors. Felicia Tapia, who earned a master’s degree in journalism in the Spring, said that her own interview subject, who had survived the Las Vegas shooting, wasn’t reticent about her story. “She was very open and willing to talk about her own experience,” Tapia said. “I think that’s a testament to how these conversations need to be happening.”

“This moment is showing how professional journalists and citizen journalists can work together to create a complex, nuanced, complete story — and drive real, systemic change.” ALLISSA RICHARDSON

The kinds of in-depth interviews conducted by the students in the “Documenting Tragedy” course are key to another storytelling form, documentary filmmaking, that works on an even longer time scale to fully explore its subjects’ stories. When Daniel H. Birman began working on a documentary film in Tennessee in 2003, he knew he wanted to shine a light on the juvenile justice system in the state — one of the most punitive and restrictive in the United States. What the professor of professional practice didn’t know was that he was about to embark on a 16-year journey in which he and his colleague Megan Chao, one of his former broadcast journalism graduate students, would chronicle one of the most controversial murder cases in recent history. Birman had just begun his reporting when 16-year-old Cyntoia Brown was arrested. Brown had endured a difficult childhood, which led to her running away from home and being forced into prostitution by an abusive boyfriend. On the night of August 6, 2004, she was picked up by a 43-yearold man, went back with him to his home and, maintaining that she feared for her life, shot and killed him. Birman immediately began cultivating a relationship with Brown, her family and her attorneys. Birman recalls it took about three months after the arrest for Brown and her family to agree to let themselves be filmed. “That level of trust takes time,” said Chao, who joined Birman on this story in 2009 and is now an adjunct instructor. “You have to prove that you’re a trustworthy person and that you don’t want to exploit their story.”

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“I teach my students that what we do is not a right, it’s a privilege,” Birman added. “We’re entering somebody else’s world.” Their exhaustive reporting throughout Brown’s case, in which she was convicted of murder and sentenced to 60 years in prison, resulted in a 2011 PBS documentary film, Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story. The documentary garnered considerable public attention and widespread calls for a reduction of Brown’s sentence, as well as increased scrutiny of the juvenile justice system. Birman and Chao stayed in touch with all of their sources, and the film got its ending of sorts when, in early 2019, Tennessee’s governor granted Brown clemency. She was released from prison in August 2019; her journey to freedom is documented in Birman and Chao’s new film, Murder to Mercy: The Cyntoia Brown Story, which was released on Netflix in April. “Life in prison, it’s not a life,” Brown says in the film after having been incarcerated for 12 years. “So, you have to kind of fight to carve out a life for yourself that has some kind of meaning, and some kind of worth, and some kind of value.” In her efforts to create that sort of meaning, Brown earned a college degree while incarcerated — including taking a course taught by one of the state prosecutors who earlier worked to deny the appeal of her conviction. “Time and proximity are funny things because they can change adversaries into allies,” the prosecutor, Preston Shipp, testified before Brown’s clemency hearing in the film. “Here I am, 10 years later, not arguing against her, but arguing in favor of her release. And I do that because I have borne witness, along with all these other folks, to the kind of person that Cyntoia is.” Capturing that moment, and so many others in the two films, were a matter of persistence, patience and a sense of mission for Birman and Chao. “There are no instant solutions to in-depth storytelling,” said Birman, who shares his personal filmmaking process with students each semester. “As journalists, at our core, we have to look beyond the superficial. We’ve got to be there, and we’ve got to be looking for things that aren’t maybe necessarily on the surface.” Bearing witness to the trauma of another often comes with an emotional cost — a cost that can be even higher when the trauma literally hits close to home. For Hector Amaya, his research is not only extensive, but deeply personal. The professor of communication and incoming director of the School of Communication has written a new book, Trafficking: Narcoculture in Mexico and the United States. Released in May by Duke University Press, the book examines how Mexico’s drug war has not only affected lives and livelihoods of the country’s people, but how it has changed the way they relate to and communicate with one another in the public sphere. “The book is my personal answer to the need to do something for the country I love,” Amaya said. “The violence is also particularly terrible in Sinaloa, the state in Mexico where I grew up. I felt compelled to try to do something about it; the book tries to address the pain of being a Mexican today, seeing your country come apart at the seams.” Rather than focus directly on the drug trafficking or violence itself, Amaya explores the way that cultural expressions have been shaped by criminal drug organizations and violence. “I was particularly interested in the way that violence has captured our imaginations — as journalists, artists, public persons,” he said. One of the main forms of communication Amaya focuses on in the book is the narcocorrido — songs that

portray drug traffickers as folk heroes. Amaya wanted to better understand the continued appeal of such music at a time of omnipresent violence. “The people who are consuming it can’t have any illusions about the actual, real impact of this violence on their country,” he said. He also looks at the work of several independent bloggers in Mexico — most of whom have had to be extremely careful about what subjects they take on in their writing. The act of witnessing, which is so central to the work of both professional and citizen journalists, is extremely dangerous in Mexico. Because of that, Amaya points out, one of the casualties of the drug war has been the ability to bear true, authentic witness to the drug war itself. “That’s the issue: The public sphere is now a space of danger,” he said. “And because of that, it cannot occupy the same role that we imagine in a safe, liberal democracy.”

“I was particularly interested in the way that violence has captured our imaginations — as journalists, artists, public persons.” H E C T O R A M AYA

When a country’s crisis becomes severe enough, thousands, even millions of people can be displaced, making them some of the most vulnerable on the planet: refugees. Numerous agencies, charities and NGOs exist to help refugees, but Aimei Yang’s research has shown that the very strength of those entities can be turned against the people they seek to help. Yang, associate professor in public relations, is an expert on the ways corporations, governments and NGOs use social media. In 2016, she began researching how refugees become targets of hatred and disinformation on social media. Yang saw that refugees — people with literally nothing, uprooted most often by war in places such as Syria or Sudan — were being framed not as human beings in need of help, but as a threat. She observed that something was interfering with an honest witnessing of their trauma. “When I was first starting to look at this, I was just blown away by how much human suffering there is in this population; it is just heart-wrenching and hard to believe,” Yang said. “But then I saw the ridiculous stuff some people say about refugees online: They’re terrorists; they’re bringing disease; they’re coming across the border to vote for Hillary Clinton.” Yang identified two worlds of information when it came to refugees. The first is a world of facts, where entities like governments dealing with large influxes of refugees, NGOs, and the United Nations share information. The second is a world of fantasy, promulgated by online conspiracy theorists connected to anti-immigrant media outlets. “That’s what caught my attention: The disconnect between the conspiracy theories and reality,” she said. “I wondered how people continue to believe these false narratives, and what kind of voices become the loudest voices, and to what degree these voices influence policy.” Using data-mining techniques and expertise in analyzing “clusters” of like-minded social media accounts, Yang began researching how the rightwing, anti-immigrant conspiracy theorists were able to amplify their messages. “Obviously, one thing that these NGOs can do is not engage with misinformation or conspiracy theories,” Yang said, “but that is difficult when Spring/Summer 2020 19

the misinformation is things that are directly harmful to refugees.” Telling accurate stories about international crises in a chaotic online information space is also an ongoing challenge for Gary Karr, a senior communication advisor for one such NGO. Karr, who earned his bachelor’s in journalism in 1984, raises awareness of world hunger for the World Food Programme (WFP) and builds relations with those who can support their work. “There is so much information out there, so many channels, everything is so fractured that it’s difficult to communicate the truly dire situation that so many people in the world are facing when it comes to food insecurity,” Karr said. In the mid-’80s a single huge event, Live Aid, raised relief aid for famine in Ethiopia. Karr notes that since 2017, four countries have been very close to famine, but there was little awareness of that among the general public. “We only get funding if we have political and donor support from wealthy countries, and to get that, people have to know about the problem,” he said. Karr believes it’s his responsibility to share the stories of the people suffering from hunger through a variety of channels. In addition to its website and social media, the WFP recently launched its Storytellers project, which trains recipients of food aid on using smartphones and other mobile journalism tools to tell their own stories. “The key is to amplify the true voices of the people who are the beneficiaries of our work, and also make sure that people around the world see those stories as part of their own stories,” Karr said. With the ongoing coronavirus pandemic reshaping daily life across the world, that shared story is nearly universal, differing only in degree. From the very outset of the COVID-19 crisis, USC Annenberg students, faculty and alumni have been using their talent and training to find innovative ways to document the most compelling public health event in generations. Not long after travel restrictions were established in March, all USC courses moved online and most of campus was shut down — including USC Annenberg’s Media Center, the high-tech hub of the school’s digital and broadcast storytelling. Annenberg Media, the student-run, multi-platform news organization that operates out of the media center, had to adapt to reporting and producing their own content under social distancing requirements. Students and faculty worked together to come up with creative ways to report on what was happening, while finding unique angles on what was then the biggest story in the world. “The question was, how would students at Annenberg Media continue to do the great work that they do on so many different platforms, day in and day out?” said Christina Bellantoni, media center director and professor of professional practice. “They really needed to innovate.” Zoom became a key tool, both for meetings and for conducting interviews across all the platforms. “They have not been going out, because they want to observe physical distancing,” said Stacy Scholder, director of Annenberg TV News and professor of professional practice. “But the students were still researching, they were still finding people to interview, and conducting interviews via Zoom.” Scholder proudly notes that ATVN didn’t miss a single show in their four-days-a-week schedule. On the audio side, Annenberg Radio News produced a series 20

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of feature-length audio stories for a special broadcast titled “Portraits of a Pandemic” that spoke to college students’ very personal experiences with the disruption caused by the coronavirus. Students and recent alumni have been sharing stories about COVID-19 not only through USC’s platforms, but also through professional media, including the Los Angeles Times. In April, Mitchell Landsberg, a senior editor at the Times, reached out to Diane Winston, associate professor and Knight Center Chair in Media and Religion, asking for help on its ambitious coronavirus reporting project, which seeks to write obituaries for every Californian who has died of COVID-19. Faculty and staff quickly secured private and foundation funding to support six full-time summer internships at the newspaper for USC Annenberg students and recent graduates. In mid-May, the new interns began contributing to the series, titled “The Pandemic’s Toll: Lives Lost in California.” “I think it’s a fantastic opportunity for our students to memorialize the stories of people who might otherwise be forgotten,” Winston said. “It’s

“I wondered how people continue to believe these false narratives, and what kind of voices become the loudest voices.” A I M EI YA N G

hard to make that first call to someone who’s lost a loved one and intrude upon their grief. However, it becomes almost a gift to the journalist to be let into a circle of intimacy, and to come to know the person who died.” With COVID-19 hitting communities of color particularly hard, Tomás Mier, who graduated this May with a bachelor’s degree in journalism, says that a strong sense of mission drives him as he works on the L.A. Times project this summer. “Half the cases of coronavirus in the state of California are Latinos,” Mier said. “As a Latinx person myself, I felt that the L.A. Times would need more Latinos to interview the families of the deceased, who might not speak English. Seeing my own community disproportionately affected by this virus really motivated me to try to cover my community effectively and share their stories.” While the pandemic will continue to be a critical story, the killing of George Floyd has forced a worldwide reckoning with the ongoing crisis of racism and police violence. Allissa Richardson says that the shocking nature of the video itself certainly contributed to the level of public outrage, but she adds that the video also had a captive audience: a country largely sheltered in place. “When we thought about reopening and getting back to business, we took a look at ourselves and decided we didn’t want to get back to the business of racism and police brutality,” she said. Richardson says that the protests have led to a rapid change in the way these issues are discussed. “It was once considered radical to say, ‘Black Lives Matter,’” she noted. “Well, now ‘Black Lives Matter’ is painted on the street that leads to the White House. The power of witnessing has forced this concept into the lexicon. That makes me very hopeful for the future.” a

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Behind The Curtain We examine how our scholars and practitioners help shape and communicate the world of celebrity. WRITTEN BY

Mira Zimet


Meiko Takechi Arquillos

On March 20, musician Josh Groban hosted one of the first Billboard Live At-Home music sessions. Dressed casually in an Interlochen Center of the Arts baseball cap and sitting up against a gray wall, he was a little out of focus, a little off-center, and initially wondered aloud if anyone would be joining the Facebook Live feed. He introduced his viewers to his dog Sweeney via photo, and let them know he was raising money for Meals on Wheels America. After spending a few minutes interacting with his fans via chat, Groban opened up with a tinny rendition of his 2010 hit song “Changing Colors.” He joked that he sounded like he was singing from inside a well, before jumping into a 28-minute combination of banter and song. After multiple requests for “You Raise Me Up,” he reminded the viewers, “I don’t have a bagpipe. I don’t have a string section. I don’t have a choir.” Nevertheless, Groban decided to improvise by bringing his computer into the shower — in order to achieve the right acoustics — asking the online audience to do the same and sing along. Groban, like many others across the United States, was working from home. The coronavirus pandemic and the social-distancing restrictions imposed in most states to limit its spread had radically reshaped nearly all aspects of day-to-day life — including how musicians, actors, athletes and other celebrities connected with their fans. Groban was able to share this very informal moment with his audience thanks in part to alumna Christina Medina, vice president of artist relations for Billboard Magazine, who booked him for the new series. “During this time, musicians who can express their vulnerability are more likely to reach an audience in a way that other entertainers might have a more difficult time doing,” said Medina, who graduated in 2007 with a bachelor’s degree in communication. “With their music, they are able to uplift and inspire hope.” Spring/Summer 2020 23


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Social-distancing measures have led not only musicians like Groban, but celebrities across the entertainment industry, to find new ways to persist in the public eye by providing even more intimate glimpses into their everyday lives. Following the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man killed by police in Minneapolis on May 25, many of these stars, such as Star Wars actor John Boyega, have used their platforms for a different kind of exposure: They have joined protesters at demonstrations around the world and called upon their fan bases to demand racial justice. Such a breadth of efforts begs the question: What is the nature of celebrity itself ? “Celebrity is the perfect lens by which to explore a lot of complex issues that permeate business and politics,” said Clinical Professor of Communication Chris Smith, whose research focuses on the relationship between economic forces and social formations. “Entertainment is media writ large.” Smith points out that while the study of entertainment and celebrity might on the surface appear frivolous to some, it provides a critical field for deep cultural inquiry. He, like Medina, is among USC Annenberg’s alumni, faculty and students who are shaping and communicating the stories of celebrity and investigating their deeper significance as they seek to understand how celebrity culture drives social engagement from across every aspect of the body politic.

“Celebrity is the perfect lens by which to explore a lot of complex issues that permeate business and politics. Entertainment is media writ large.” CHRIS SMITH

Shaping the Study and Story of Celebrity USC Annenberg’s intentional, scholarly approach to the discussion of entertainment and celebrity started 20 years ago when the then-dean, Geoffrey Cowan, asked Marty Kaplan, an associate dean at the time, to put together an entertainment curriculum for the school. Entertainment was taking over every realm of society, Kaplan explained. “We added entertainment as undergraduate and graduate tracks, and a universitywide minor, and created 11 new courses,” said Kaplan, who holds the Norman Lear Chair in Entertainment, Media and Society. “It turned out to be the most popular of the minors and of the tracks, indicating there was a demand from students to learn more about it if they wanted a career in it.” Since then, scores of students have enrolled in the courses that span communication, journalism and public relations. This Spring, there were eight courses across these disciplines with either entertainment or celebrity in the course title. Smith has taught courses on celebrity since 2008, first as part of the communication management master’s program and then later at the undergraduate level. “I teach students to not chase trends, but instead to think about the enduring ways that people form identities

around cultural phenomena,” he said. “We are able to travel into their worlds beyond the USC campus, and they in turn are brought into our spaces and our classrooms to have these critical conversations.” These perspectives stuck with Kirstin Benson, who took Smith’s entertainment course before she graduated in 2009 with a master’s in communication management. Benson, now vice president of global entertainment at Getty Images, reflects on her part in another important cultural conversation. On June 1, 2015, Caitlyn Jenner posted her first tweet: “I’m so happy after such a long struggle to be living my true self. Welcome to the world Caitlyn. Can’t wait for you to get to know her/me.” Jenner, the famed Olympic decathlon champion, came out as a transgender woman across traditional and social media. But she didn’t do it alone. Benson, then editor-in-chief at WhoSay, a creative marketing agency for celebrities, was part of the launch team that devised the strategies and messaging needed to introduce Caitlyn Jenner to the world. “Stories are most powerful when they’re being told by the person who lived them,” said Benson, who also earned a bachelor’s degree in 2008 in communication and theater. “I spent hours with Caitlyn to help her craft a narrative that would resonate with audiences while leading the conversation around her journey toward becoming a woman in a positive way.” After it was leaked that Vanity Fair would feature a cover with Jenner as a woman, the initial plan had to be fast-tracked. Benson was tasked with launching Jenner’s Twitter handle, which itself broke a world record: the fastest-growing Twitter account of all time, reaching one million followers in four hours and three minutes. The next step, Benson said, was determining how to control the narrative moving forward. This ability to craft stories about celebrity and entertainment is also the focus of Mary Murphy’s courses. For the past six years, Murphy, associate professor of professional practice, has taught three courses in entertainment reporting each semester. Like many USC Annenberg faculty, she brings a wealth of personal experience to her instruction, having worked for the Los Angeles Times, Entertainment Tonight and Esquire, among others, as a producer and reporter. “I’m able to share my background covering Hollywood and politics around the globe with my students,” she said. “I show them how cultural trends first bubble up in the world of celebrity as a way to help them understand its impact culturally, politically and globally.” Being in Los Angeles, Murphy says, also allows USC Annenberg to engage with Hollywood as an extension of the classroom. Murphy has brought many culturally relevant celebrity guests to campus to interview in her classes, giving students the chance to meet and network with those working in the business. Some of her guests have included actors Kerry Washington, Lisa Kudrow and Will Arnett, as well as TV personality Brad Goreski and YouTube phenom and singer Troye Sivan.

The Pressure of Tech and Economics of Brand Murphy remembers the moment when the world of entertainment and celebrity reporting started to move away from primarily traditional platforms into social media. It was 2011, and she was interviewing Ashton Kutcher, who had just taken over for Charlie Sheen on the CBS sitcom Two and a Half Men. Kutcher told her that if he didn’t like what she wrote, he could go on Twitter and tell his side of the story, Murphy recalled. Kutcher had Spring/Summer 2020 25

been on Twitter since 2009 and had millions of followers. Nearly a decade later, social media isn’t just where mainstream celebrities go to tell their stories. “It’s where new celebrities (and their brands) are made,” said Katie Durko, who earned her bachelor’s in public relations in 2010. “It’s no longer the vision of a celebrity being that person you just saw in a movie or TV show.” Durko co-founded Edit Media Group, a digital marketing agency that works with a variety of celebrity clientele. She believes that as celebrities aim to connect more deeply with the public, they are looking less toward partnerships with brands, and more toward creating their own. “On social, people are really looking to cut through the bullshit,” Durko said. “They see ownership as more authentic than some of the brand partnerships that celebrities are doing.” Shay Mitchell, an actress who starred in Pretty Little Liars, hired Durko to help launch her new luggage line, BÉIS. Mitchell’s vision was to offer something missing in the marketplace: style and affordability. Durko and her team worked to shape the brand’s creative look, voice and tone that would play out across social media. For Durko, the development of content authentic for each specific platform is critical. For example, as part of the social media strategy, viewers could watch Mitchell choosing fabrics on Instagram for a new luggage line — something they wouldn’t find if they went on BÉIS’ site. “Celebrities are really spending the time,” Durko said. “It’s not like their ‘name’ is just being thrown on a product. They are fully invested.” Chris Smith, who also runs the interdisciplinary program Media, Economics & Entrepreneurship — M{2e} — studies this new “investor” class of celebrity. “Celebrity is a kind of capital, and there are endless opportunities to allocate those resources in the marketplace of products and ideas,” he said. “This is what economists refer to as ‘the superstar effect,’ and if you are on that pinnacle like Gwyneth Paltrow and LeBron James, the world is your oyster.”

Celebrity as Activist While the economic impact of celebrity can be traced back to actresses like Elizabeth Taylor, one of the first stars to market off of her fame, the idea of celebrities having a responsibility to leverage that fame and their financial resources for the greater good is relatively new. Smith references alumna Sophia Bush, who earned a bachelor’s in journalism in 2020, as a strong example of the socially responsible celebrity. “Sophia’s popularity as an actress has fueled her activism and ability to convert that entertainment following into a following for her point of view and thought leadership,” Smith said. From the ongoing coronavirus pandemic to the protests against police violence, he points out that celebrities’ actions (and inactions) in response to these crises are increasingly under a microscope. Benson, for example, highlighted artists who have donated their time and money over the last few months as an example of “doing it right.” Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Rihanna and Pink have donated millions of dollars to coronavirus-related relief funds. Lady Gaga arranged the “One World: Together at Home” virtual concert with more than 60 musicians that raised over $127 million. “Something as small as these Billboard home performance sessions have brought in close to $80,000 since March,” Medina said. “The donations have gone to charities, organizations and nonprofits that not only help those impacted by the pandemic, but also support Black and brown causes and communities.” 26

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When protests started in late May in response to the killing of Floyd, Medina noted that Billboard recognized an even more urgent need to amplify the voices of those experiencing inequities. “This is what’s happening in our community and it has to stop for good. Period,” she said. On June 2, Billboard joined music executives Jamila Thomas and Brianna Agyemang’s #TheShowMustBePaused campaign, which called for a day-long shutdown “to hold the industry at large, including major corporations and their partners who benefit from the efforts, struggles and successes of Black people, accountable.” Billboard reported on the event extensively, and Medina helped book Thomas and Agyemang for their June 13 cover, also arranging for an in-depth profile.

“The public’s current anger toward the more tone-deaf celebrities will dissipate…but the lessons in humility that celebrities learn will stick long after.” KIRSTIN BENSON

Smith adds that many celebrities are also choosing to move beyond hashtags to position themselves alongside protesters. “If they are out there, truly on the front line with tear gas flying and National Guard on the march, that’s a profound statement of solidarity and risk-taking,” Smith said as part of an interview on June 4 with Good Morning America (GMA). ABC News correspondent and alumna Adrienne Bankert, who reported the GMA segment, added that today’s protests recall an earlier era of activism, when celebrities like Sammy Davis, Jr. and Aretha Franklin helped finance the civil rights movement. “Celebrities had a very legitimizing impact on the movement in the ’60s,” Smith said. “They brokered the acceptance of the movement for more mainstream white Americans.” Not all the light being shed on celebrities, however, is positive. Some are being called out for inaction and insensitivity. Celebrities who are tone-deaf to what is happening in the world are struggling right now for relevance, Benson said. “During this time of crisis, the very thing that fascinates us most about celebrities during ‘normal’ times — their opulent, aspirational lifestyles — has only made us hyperaware of what we don’t have,” she said. “The global pandemic is shining a bright light on the class divide.” As for what happens once restrictions ease, both Smith and Benson believe that celebrities will remain relevant. “I think the longstanding trend of celebrities being a focal point within modern civilization is not going to change,” Smith said. “I think we’re fascinated by particular people for various reasons, and that fascination will not end.” Benson agrees, but also hopes some things will change for the better. “The public’s current anger toward the more tone-deaf celebrities will dissipate, and the cult of celebrity will return,” she said. “But the lessons in humility that celebrities learn will stick long after.” a


Forces Three alumnae share their paths to realizing their entrepreneurial dreams and creating their own legacies.





Ashley Williams

started RIZZARR in 2014 to give Millennial and Gen Z content creators a publishing platform.





Ashley Williams is on her fourth Zoom call of the day pitching her digital content-creation platform, RIZZARR, to potential investors. “Every company has become a media company in some way, but brands struggle to create content that resonates with younger generations,” she says to two investors from a Midwest venture capital firm that focuses on online marketplaces and software as a service. As the founder and CEO of a tech-enabled content marketplace that connects brands with Millennial and Gen Z content creators around the globe, Williams had to quickly adjust this spring as she opened a new round of seed funding amid the social-distancing measures brought on by COVID-19. With in-person travel limited, she hunkered down in her high-rise apartment in Detroit and focused on perfecting her pitch deck and talking with her lawyer to make sure everything was in order. “Lots of people are having to pivot right now, but as an entrepreneur you need to be willing to change things all the time,” said Williams, who earned a bachelor’s degree in broadcast and digital journalism in 2011. “It’s the natural course of what we do.” Williams and fellow female founders and alumnae Paige Adams-Geller and Sabena Suri recognize that being able to adapt with agility, speed and focus has become deeply ingrained within them as leaders. While each has charted her own distinct course, they all say that a commitment to fostering courage and pursuing a values-based approach to doing business is what underlies their sustained success.


L E E - M E R R I O N

How it all began

Adams-Geller was raised in the small town of Wasilla, Alaska, where she developed an adventurous spirit and big dreams. She graduated from high school early and was accepted into USC Annenberg, where she began classes at 16. Four years later, in 1990, she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in communication. From there, Adams-Geller went on to be one of the top fit models in the industry. “There was a period of time when I felt that I had reached the top of my game working as a fit model and knew that the entertainment industry wasn’t going to be a healthy place for me to stay,” she said. Looking for purpose and passion, Adams-Geller consulted a life coach, who encouraged her to launch her own company. Having come from a family of entrepreneurs, she wondered, “Do I really want to be an entrepreneur when I know how all-consuming it can be?” — but the idea was planted. In 2004, she founded her namesake lifestyle brand, PAIGE. “I think the biggest hurdle, at first, was the notion that word on the street was I was just a model with a clothing brand and that this was all hype,” she said. “PAIGE was just going to be a one-hit wonder, but instead of making me angry, it fueled the fire and made me want to even become more successful.” That fire turned PAIGE into a multimillion-dollar lifestyle brand. Suri also wrestled with earning credibility. She and her two co-founders were all women in their early Spring/Summer 2020 29

twenties when they started their e-commerce gifting company, BOXFOX. “People just didn’t take us seriously,” said Suri, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in public relations in 2012. “When we explained the concept, so many people said, ‘Oh, you’re building gift boxes in your garage, congratulations.’ We had to prove that we’re not just selling gifts, we’re actually powering relationships.” The idea behind BOXFOX emerged when one of the co-founders’ friends was hospitalized. While searching for the perfect get-well present, Suri found that all the choices seemed impersonal. “There was just this hole in the market for sending something meaningful, but also beautifully curated,” she said. “We saw a need for a more authentic gesture — a gift that actually reflected the relationship and the moment that you were trying to honor.” After starting out in an apartment in Venice, Calif., in 2014 with a $5,000 investment, their company has since changed location four times to keep up with expanding demand, grown to 36 employees and is now worth an estimated $6 million.

“When times get challenging, or when you feel like you want to give up, you need to always come back to why you’re doing something in the first place.” S A B E N A


Suri credits the company’s success to their ethos: consumer-driven strategy meets elevated execution. “It’s all about matching human psychology with innovation,” said Suri, who was named to the Forbes 30 Under 30 list in the retail and e-commerce category last year. “Rather than reposition or re-invent a legacy brand, we’ve been able to architect from the ground up based on consumer insight and where our culture is heading — convenience, customization and care.” Williams relied on a similar formula when beginning RIZZARR. While working as a multimedia journalist at USA Today just outside of Washington, D.C., she listened to interns and realized that Millennials and Gen Zers were having a difficult time building robust portfolios of published articles, videos and podcasts. At the same time, companies also spoke to her about their struggle to find and integrate this same creative content into their marketing efforts as they sought to reach younger audiences. In 2014, Williams decided to pressure-test her business model by submitting for the annual Black New 30

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Venture competition sponsored by the Harvard Business School’s African American Student Union. She ultimately earned second place, a potential investor and renewed confidence. “Although the partnership with the angel investor didn’t work out since we had different visions for the company, from all of these breadcrumbs, I finally got the courage to tell myself, ‘Ashley, you can do this,’” Williams said.

The inner belief

Like Williams, Suri has found that identifying and uniquely solving problems has been crucial to her success. “When times get challenging, or when you feel like you want to give up, you need to always come back to why you’re doing something in the first place,” Suri said. “I think this is the most important thing for any entrepreneur to remember.” Suri admits that BOXFOX has intentionally grown slowly, as the team has put one foot in front of the other: writing a business plan, building a website, curating brands to include. Along the way, she said what has kept them moving and growing is an intrinsic belief in the service they’re providing not only their customers, but also their employees. “It’s not just about the external brand — it’s also about hiring and being able to offer our employees the workplace environment that we dreamed of when we were coming up in the ranks,” Suri said. For Williams, raising the seed funding she needs to hire a full-time team of eight, rebuild her platform, and scale further has also taken time and persistence. From the outset, she encountered the barriers women of color face in the venture-backed ecosystem. “I think investors have this idea of what an entrepreneur looks like, and that’s someone who looks and acts like them: a white male,” she said. “I think as more of us are seen and heard, more doors will open for other minorities. “I’ve been working on RIZZARR going on five years, and I can tell you that it wasn’t until the third year that I started to see the light,” Williams added. That third year, 2017, is when she secured a shortterm contract position for a national medical company. That opportunity later led to a long-term, life-changing opportunity: a big contract for RIZZARR. This turned into an invitation to join Detroit’s TechTown Business Incubator Center, which led to more contracts and more customers. Based on input from investors, she also shifted from a curated media aggregator to a marketplace model, which allows her roughly 5,400 content providers to create digital media for companies of all sizes. “My hope is to awaken all of us to the fact that we are connected,” Williams said. As the first female founder in the premium denim world, Adams-Geller was also seeking to forge a personal connection with customers when she initially selected her company name. “Even though I knew I always wanted it to be more than denim, I initially made the mistake of calling the company PAIGE Premium Denim and then combined that with a very feminine logo,” she said. Two years later, when she was ready to broaden the company’s offerings into men’s and lifestyle wear, critics told her that she couldn’t do it. “Many of my colleagues in the industry would say, ‘If you start off in denim, you’re not really going to be able to do other products,’” she said. “‘They’re just going to

Sabena Suri

and her colleagues created BOXFOX in 2014 to offer curated, personalized gift boxes.

Paige Adams-Geller

launched PAIGE as a premium denim brand in 2004, later expanding to a men’s line and then a full lifestyle collection.

see you as a denim brand. That’s all you’re going to be, and that’s that.’” Adams-Geller refused to listen. She hired a firm to redesign her logo, then positioned her entire collection under one umbrella, PAIGE, and suffered no consequences as a result. “It only helped move us forward,” she said.

Answering the call to action

As leaders, Adams-Geller, Suri and Williams all advanced into uncharted territory this spring, when they re-evaluated their business models in response to a global pandemic and heightened calls for racial justice. Employee safety was paramount — and was a particular challenge for PAIGE and BOXFOX, both of which employ warehouse workers who ship products. “Above and beyond anything, the values we had in place before COVID-19 are the same values that we have now: connectivity and communication,” Adams-Geller said. “And we are relying on them even more on a daily basis.” Adams-Geller, along with her daughter, Allie Geller Brown, who is a 2005 graduate of USC Annenberg and PAIGE’s chief marketing officer, shared that while things were changing rapidly, their foundation remained steady. “When you say ‘pivot,’ I think most people think changing directions completely,” Geller Brown said. “A huge part of our strategy has been to not think of things that way. There are certain things that we had to tweak, whether it be messaging or content, but the brand’s DNA hasn’t changed.” At BOXFOX, once changes were put in place to ensure the safety of their employees, Suri and her leadership team concentrated on customers’ needs. They added PPE to their gift offerings and introduced a new “Work from Home”-themed collection. The Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd prompted Suri and her co-founders to take a closer look at the brands BOXFOX partners with for their collections. “We are really trying to answer the call to action for retailers to dedicate 15% of their shelf space to Black creators and manufacturers,” she said. “By mid-June we identified 10 Black-founded and -owned brands that we began carrying immediately, with more to come. We know we have a wide, captive audience — so we’re excited to use that platform to amplify Black voices.” Williams echoes the need for timely action and a lasting commitment to Black-owned companies, particularly women-owned businesses. “The plight that, particularly African American businesswomen go through, has really been heightened right now,” she said. “From my own experience, I do see that there is now definitely more of a willingness by investors to look at pitch decks and to dedicate more funding to this group.” Although Williams knows that she may still encounter resistance on the path ahead, she said she also knows that, deep within herself, she has the fortitude to keep going and the power to make positive change. Her hope is that, through her life and her company, she can “empower young people to provide conscientiousness to the world, and to awaken generations to come as to what is possible,” she said. “The amount of impact that we can provide in the world is unfathomable. Each of us can create positive ripple effects that far exceed our lifetimes, if we believe.” a

Leading by Example As part of the Women’s Leadership Society (WLS), young women across the university gather together each year to learn from each other, and to plan and design events that bring in influential women working at the intersection of technology, media and entertainment. The speakers have ranged from industry leaders such as Gillian Tett, the Financial Times’ U.S. managing editor, Wendy Spies, Microsoft’s worldwide director of engineering strategy and development, and Nely Galán, Telemundo’s first Latina president. This year’s two student co-directors, Julissa Romero and MacKenzie McClung, share their insights as to why this program has offered them the critical team-building and networking skills needed to successfully enter the workforce.

“Women’s Leadership Society has given me a new perspective on what it means to really find empowerment in yourself — having an idea and going for that idea, knowing this is the problem you want to solve.” JULISSA ROMERO (BA, communication, ’20), a San Diego native, interned for Alexis Wilson, founder of brand agency Exalt Management, during her senior year. Wilson inspired Romero to be fearless. One entrepreneurial idea she is now considering is finding a solution for women who want to wear a shoe that doesn’t sacrifice height for comfort.

“Through WLS, we’ve learned about the perspectives and struggles of women in the film industry, in the accounting industry and in entrepreneurship. It’s made me more emotionally intelligent and better equipped to enter the workplace.” MACKENZIE MCCLUNG (communication data science, ’21) grew up in Texas and is not new to entrepreneurial thinking. As an engineer, she considers herself a problem solver. She started an online community in her junior year of high school called “Galgorithms” that was designed to share the ways women and girls all over the world were making STEM more female-oriented.

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Nick Valencia works through the bad days By Ted B. Kissell

When not in the field, Nick Valencia uses this shed in his Atlanta backyard as his socially distanced home studio.

Throughout his 14-year career at CNN, correspondent Nick Valencia has seen more than his share of bad days. The devastation of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, the anguish of the Mother Emmanuel church shooting in Charleston, the unrest in Atlanta after the killing of George Floyd by police officers — the last of which left him with flesh wounds from a BB gun to his back. “The hardest part of my job is looking into people’s eyes on their worst days,” said Valencia (BA, broadcast journalism, ’05). Now based in Atlanta, he is in the thick of his network’s reporting on the COVID-19 crisis, as millions of people across the United States and the world face one bad day after another. “Coronavirus has been part of my daily life, in pretty much every conversation, since February,” Valencia said. “Journalists have always had an important job, but right now that’s truer than ever. We’re really bringing to our viewers and our readers information they need about how this is going to affect their life. Not just in this moment, but in the long term.” That level of empathy and commitment to public service through journalism has driven Valencia throughout his career, which started in the Eagle Rock neighborhood of northeast Los Angeles. “I already had the journalism bug in high school,” he said. Valencia remembers his father, Ricardo Valencia Jr., coming with him to cover a varsity basketball game when he was about 16 years old. At one point when they were sitting in the stands, “He said to me, ‘I just love watching you do what you’re meant to do,’” Valencia said. Less than a year later, while Valencia was still in high school, his father died — and was buried with his son’s first press pass. Valencia sees his journalism career as a way to honor his dad’s legacy. “He knew what I was meant to do even before I did,” Valencia said. “I’m a third-generation Mexican American, first-generation college graduate, working at CNN as one of their correspondents, and that’s something that makes, not just my family, but my community really proud.” Valencia believes his USC Annenberg education gave him the tools he needs to tell those kinds of stories from the front lines. As an entry-level teleprompter operator at CNN in 2006, “I first got noticed when I bought a ticket to Uganda,” Valencia said. “They let me bring my badge, but I was technically on vacation time. I crisscrossed the country and brought back my report on the return of Indian immigrants who had been expelled from the country. I would have never been able to do that if I wasn’t trained on how to set up a camera, how to do interviews — the skills that I learned at USC.” From that early break, Valencia worked his way up at CNN, specializing in reporting from crisis zones. He has put those high-pressure journalistic skills to work on some of CNN’s most crucial coverage of COVID-19, including tracking the spread of coronavirus in his home state of Georgia and covering the conflicts between Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the White House. As he continues to advance his audience’s understanding of the pandemic, Valencia acknowledges that he’s had his own share of bad days. In January, he was diagnosed with anxiety disorder, depression and post-traumatic stress — a fact he felt compelled to share with the public. “You shouldn’t be ashamed to confront this,” he told his colleague Robin Meade on the April 22 episode of her CNN Headline News show. “I got into journalism to help people, and that’s why I’m doing this, as uncomfortable as it is … it’s so important to tell people that we’re going through it with them.” Valencia says he would like to believe his father would approve of both his work at CNN, and his forthrightness about his own mental health challenges. “My dad always told me greatness is measured by how much it takes to discourage you,” Valencia said. “If you want to be great, you can only get to it through adversity.” a Photo courtesy of Nick Valencia

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Summer at Spotify Creating a pipeline for new podcasters.

JANISE ANAYA (BA, public relations, ’16) was promoted to full-time marketing manager for Live Nation Entertainment.

Spotify and USC Annenberg have announced the creation of a combined internship and fellowship pipeline program aimed at promoting inclusion and innovation in podcasting. Five USC Annenberg students were selected for the initial 10-week paid summer internship, which is designed to support students in developing their technical and creative skills in podcasting. They were given the opportunity to apply to various positions, including production, writing, editorial and sports at one of the three Spotify affiliates (Spotify Studios, Parcast and Gimlet). Fiona Pestana (journalism, ’21), one of the selected interns, wrote, “Interning at Spotify is definitely a silver lining right now. Because of the pandemic, we thought these types of opportunities wouldn’t be available. I’m so excited.” Spotify executives also chose: Diana A. Postolache (BA, journalism, ’20); Daric Cottingham (specialized journalism, ’21); Kylie Harrington (BA, journalism, ’20) and Jazzmin Stanberry-Lehn (BA, journalism, ’20). A fellowship program is scheduled to pick up where the internship ends, providing opportunities for those students who have demonstrated exceptional skills within the summer program.

Spotify has also committed to sponsoring research from the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative surrounding women within the music and recording industry.

NEW MASTER’S PROGRAM in PR and advertising To reflect the sweeping transformation across the global communications landscape, USC Annenberg has developed a new MA in Public Relations and Advertising program that will position students at the leading edge of these dynamic industries. The inaugural class will enroll this Fall as the new graduate degree program succeeds the MA in Strategic Public Relations. To align the program’s learning outcomes, the school assembled an advisory council comprising of faculty members and industry leaders. “The program doubles down on research — both big and small-data analysis — and multiplatform content creation, as well as coding apps and websites,” said Burghardt 34

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Tenderich, professor of professional practice, who led the council. Michael Nyman (BA, sports information, ’86), CEO of Acceleration and a member of USC Annenberg’s Board of Councilors, also served on the council. “Our students will get the skills and experiences necessary to be successful in public relations and advertising,” Nyman said.

ILAN BEN-HANAN (BA, broadcast journalism, ’00) was promoted to senior vice president, programming and acquisitions at ESPN. JARED BLANK (BA, communication, ’05 and MCG, communication management, ’07) published the book Running the Distance (IDA publications). JAMES N. BRENNER (BA, communication, ’03) was named partner at international law firm Perkins Coie. LANDON DERENTZ (BA, communication, ’04) joined the U.S. Department of Energy as director for Middle Eastern and African Affairs.

KEVIN GREENE (BA, communication ’12 and MCG, communication management, ’14) was promoted to account executive at Salesforce.

MICHELLE INOUYE SCHULTZ (BA, print journalism and English, ’93) was promoted to senior vice president, legal for Warner Bros. Entertainment.

JOSEPH MARCHELEWSKI ( BA, public relations and political science, ’04) was named president of the L.A. chapter of the Public Relations Society of America.

MOLLY MCCLARY (BA, public relations, ’19) joined The Walt Disney Company’s Parks, Experiences and Products segment as an analytics and insights specialist. LAUREN MCGOODWIN ( MCG, communication management, ’13) released her first book, Power Moves: How Women can Pivot, Reboot, and Build a Career of Purpose (Harper Business) in May.

JOY MITCHELL (BA, print journalism, ’07) is a Berlin-based television writer for the Netflix drama series The Letter for the King and Deutschland 86.

ROMI NEUSTADT (BA, broadcast journalism and political science, ’92) published her latest book, You Can Have It All, Just Not at the Same Damn Time (Penguin Group).

Photos by iStock


L.A. by the Numbers Data from Crosstown reveals how COVID-19 is affecting Angelenos.

Since March, members of the Crosstown data-journalism project have been quantifying, analyzing, visualizing and reporting on the wide-ranging impacts of the coronavirus pandemic across Los Angeles. The effort, which is led by Professor of Professional Practice Gabriel Kahn and is jointly run with USC Viterbi’s Integrated Media Systems Center, examines issues such as how rates of confirmed COVID-19 cases compare among L.A.’s richest and poorest enclaves. The Crosstown team, which includes USC students, has also found that the city’s “Safer at Home” order has resulted in a marked reduction in reports of simple assault and an increase in reports of stolen cars compared with the same period in 2019. “We’ve been able to dig deeper into the situation and observe changes such as spikes in domestic violence as well as neighbor and landlord-tenant disputes,” Kahn said. “As we get more data, we’ll be able to tell an even more intricate, nuanced story.”


“Sparking a National Movement: PR and Youth Activism in March For Our Lives, with Brendan Duff” #PRFuture, hosted by Fred Cook and the Center for Public Relations

“A Global Look at the Virus that Upended the World,” Scheer

Intelligence, hosted by Robert Scheer


Mike Ananny, “Anticipatory News Infrastructures: Seeing Journalism’s Expectations of Future Publics in its Sociotechnical System,” New Media & Society Hye Min Kim (doctoral candidate, communication) and Lynn Miller,

“Are Insecure Attachment Styles Related to Risky Sexual Behavior?: A Meta-Analysis,” Health Psychology


Joe Saltzman received the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication’s Jinx Coleman Broussard Award for Excellence in the Teaching of Media History. Robert Hernandez and the JOVRNALISM team won a Webby Award in the video reality category. Hernan Galperin received the International Communication Association’s top paper award in the communication law and policy division.


Trafficking: Narcoculture in Mexico and the United States by

Hector Amaya, professor of communication, explores how drug violence in Mexico has led to new forms of participation in public culture.

Bearing Witness While Black: African Americans, Smartphones, and the New Protest #Journalism by Allissa Richardson

Photo by iStock/Adam Kaz

Spring/Summer 2020 35



Are You What You Watch?

Norman Lear Center study tracks the many ways that Americans’ political views shape their taste in TV shows. By Ted B. Kissell Conservatives and liberals tend to live in bubbles of like-minded news sources. According to ongoing research by the Norman Lear Center at USC Annenberg, the same holds for their entertainment choices — except for House, which both conservatives and liberals said they liked. “Conservatives in general are skeptical of scripted, ‘Hollywood’ TV shows, but they did like House,” said Johanna Blakley, managing director of the center and one of the main authors of the study. Since 2007, the Lear Center has been tracking how Americans’ favorite TV shows, movies and music are connected to their attitudes on a host of hot-button political issues. By tracking these relationships over time, the center’s researchers hope to quantify how entertainment and politics interact. “People are often influenced by the entertainment they consume,” Blakley said. “They shift their attitudes on issues, and sometimes take action, just based on compelling fictional stories — not news or documentaries.” The 2019 study, which focused more on TV than previous years, revealed a couple of striking trends. First, political preferences had shifted generally toward moderate views around several key issues: including the environment, regulation of business, guns and abortion. Second, the survey found that several shows appealed more specifically to viewers on the political left (Blues), right (Reds) and center (Purples). The more liberal Blues liked watching Modern Family, The Big Bang Theory, The Simpsons, South Park and Law & Order: SVU. Purples fa36

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vored The Voice and Empire, but they also liked Saturday Night Live — a favorite among Blues as well — as well as Duck Dynasty, which was preferred by Reds. Reds also liked the Hallmark, History and Ion channels far more than others, while their favorite show was NCIS. All three ideological groups were able to agree on five shows that they all watched and enjoyed: America’s Funniest Home Videos, Bones, Criminal Minds, MythBusters and Pawn Stars. Blakley confesses that she was surprised at first at this seemingly disparate list of preferred shows. While the research revealed that much of the popularity of Pawn Stars came from so-called “hate-watching,” all five of the shows, different as they were, did have a common thread. “It was only after the study was completed that I came up with a hypothesis: All five of these shows value truth,” Blakley said. “Bones and Criminal Minds are classic police procedurals. MythBusters is entirely about the delights of scientific skepticism and the quest for truth. Perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the neutral ground for Americans of all political stripes is storytelling devoted to finding the bad guy, debunking the myth — and exposing how silly humans can really be.”






35% 47% 18%

2018 In the past ten years, the number of viewers who identify as liberal Blues in the Lear Center study has grown, while the number of independent Purples has mostly held steady and the number of conservative Reds has declined.

“Understanding why people tune in is essential to developing smart cultural strategies.”


Spring/Summer 2020 37


crisis, organizations often gain access to talent they might not otherwise. “At the NBA, we’re using this as an opportunity to continue to grow, particularly in the age of digital media, digital marketing, social media, content creation, and direct-to-consumer distribution,” he said. Hutcherson also advised students graduating in May to confidently assert what they can offer potential employers. “Take the skills that USC Annenberg has taught you and go tell people what you have the capabilities to do,” Hutcherson said. “You interact with somebody like me on one of these Zoom calls and all of a sudden — boom — two or three connections together. And before you know it, you’re working somewhere. That’s the way it happens.” In addition to Hutcherson, speakers for the series have included broadcast and local TV news executives and a panel of six alumnae currently working at news media organizations such as Bloomberg News, NBC and The Wall Street Journal.

Industry Insights

New online series focuses on best practices and career advice for the COVID-19 era.

In April, NBA executive vice president and chief human resources officer Eric Hutcherson became the first featured speaker for Annenberg Intelligence. Created by Dean Willow Bay, the speaker series provides an opportunity for industry leaders to share their insights into managing through the COVID-19 pandemic as well as their advice for students navigating their academic and professional journeys during a challenging time. As the principal driver of the league’s global workforce strategy, Hutcherson emphasized that in times of 38

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USC ELECTION CYBERSECURITY INITIATIVE The Center on Communication Leadership and Policy, together with partners from across USC and the generous support of Google, launched bipartisan training sessions in all 50 states beginning in January to empower election and campaign officials in reinforcing their defenses against digital attacks that may affect the integrity and outcome of elections. The Annenberg Intelligence series, which continues throughout the summer, connects organizational leaders — including the NBA’s Eric Hutcherson — with students to share their industry insights and career advice amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

TIGHTROPE: AMERICANS REACHING FOR HOPE Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, authors of Tightrope: Americans Reaching For Hope, shared how they captured the deeply personal stories of the country’s working class, who are facing long-term unemployment, poverty and dwindling social services. A CONVERSATION WITH ELENI KOUNALAKIS Lieutenant Governor of California Eleni Kounalakis joined the Center of Public Diplomacy to explore

the state’s response to the COVID-19 challenges, its subnational leadership in international affairs, and her vision for a re-imagined global dynamic. THE ROLE OF PR IN NAVIGATING COVID-19 As part of the Annenberg Connects speaker series, senior vice president Tal Woliner (BA, communication, ’05) led a discussion with members of her BCW Global team on the evolving PR landscape, the role of corporate purpose, and the importance of external and internal communications. THROUGH THE BANKS OF THE RED CEDAR SCREENING AND CONVERSATION In this USC Visions and Voices event, Clinical Professor of Communication Daniel Durbin and Associate Professor of Journalism Ben Carrington led a panel discussion with USC alumna Maya Washington about her documentary, Through the Banks of the Red Cedar, which centers on the first fully integrated college football team in America. Photo by Olivia Mowry


AMANDA BRUNAK earns new PR scholarship

Ever since Amanda Brunak (BA, public relations, ’20) set foot on the USC campus, she’s made the most out of her time, from becoming director of PR for The Buzz, a student-run TV program, to participating in the Spring 2019 New York Maymester program. “I was able to immerse myself in the evolving media landscape and really understand firsthand how it

is adapting and changing to meet our new digital consuming needs,” Brunak said. In January, Brunak was recognized by the Center for Public Relations (CPR) as the inaugural recipient of the Noemi Pollack Scholarship. The merit-based tuition scholarship — named in honor of Noemi Pollack, the CEO and founder of The Pollack PR Marketing Group — is awarded on an academic-year basis to an undergraduate majoring or minoring in PR who will actively participate in the important research and operations of CPR. “I know that Amanda will apply her creativity and strategic thinking in helping to solve the pressing communications challenges of the day,” Pollack said. Brunak added, “Receiving this scholarship award bolstered my confidence heading into graduation because I knew I already had iconic industry professionals supporting my journey.”

ALUMNI FILMMAKERS selected for Sundance A virtual reality film dealing with the issue of land redistribution in South Africa and a documentary chronicling the life of two helicopter reporters in Los Angeles — by graduate alumni Dylan Valley and Matt Yoka, respectively — were selections at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival in late January. Valley (MA, specialized journalism (the arts), ’14), returned to get his graduate degree because the program “was targeted towards people who were practitioners of the arts.” He begin working on his film, Azibuye – The Occupation, after graduation. In the piece he addresses how Black people in South Africa have been dispossessed of their lands through both colonization and the Natives Land Act of 1913. Valley looks at the immersive story as a way to address a large, social-historical issue in a very personal, direct way. Yoka (MA, specialized journalism ’14) earned his master’s degree because he was looking at a way to develop his own voice. His selected film, Whirlybird, chronicles the lives of Zoey Tur and her then-wife Marika Gerrard, who revolutionized breaking news in the 1980s and ’90s — including the infamous O.J. Simpson Ford Bronco chase down the 405 freeway — by capturing footage from high atop the city in their helicopter. Yoka’s film tells a story about the sprawl that is Los Angeles, as well as an intimate story about Tur’s journey to coming out as a trans woman in 2013. In referring to Tur, Yoka said, “She struck me as not just somebody who could be a tour guide of Los Angeles but could also sort of a take us on an emotional journey as well.” Photo courtesy of Amanda Brunak

Dylan Valley was traveling back to Cape Town when he learned that his film had gotten into Sundance. “I was dancing in the terminal.”

Matt Yoka was at a camera store when he found out his documentary had been accepted. “I started fist-pumping.”

USC ANNENBERG STUDENTS AND ALUMNI garnered multiple awards and honors at the Broadcast Education Association Festival of Media Arts. Top award winners include: Melissa Dueñas (specialized journalism (the arts)), Best of Festival Award for Student News Competition: Radio, “How Chamorros in the Diaspora are Taking Back Their Culture” (Ampersand). Radio Feature Reporting: Jon Reed (MA, specialized journalism (the arts), ’19), first place, “The Disappearing Art of Watch Repair” (Annenberg Radio). Radio Newscast: ZaZu Lippert (public relations, ’22), Aiyonna White (journalism, ’22), Isaiah Murtaugh (MA, specialized journalism ’20) and Yuki Liang (journalism, ’22), first place, “From Where We Are: From the Ashes of the Woolsey Fire, Malibu’s True Colors Shine Through” (Annenberg Radio). HEARST ENTERPRISE REPORTING COMPETITION: Sasha Urban (print and digital journalism, ’21), first place, “48 male patients say campus doctor sexually abused them — and USC was warned” (BuzzFeed News). THE SOCIETY OF PROFESSIONAL JOURNALISTS, D.C. PRO CHAPTER 2020 DATELINE AWARDS Investigative Journalism, Shirsho Dasgupta (MS, journalism, ’19), first place, “Stricken: Veterans Want Answers as New Data Shows Rise in Cancers over Two Decades of War” (McClatchy Washington Bureau).

THE NATIONAL ACADEMY OF TELEVISION ARTS & SCIENCES EMMY AWARD, PACIFIC SOUTHWEST CHAPTER: Claudia Buccio (BA, communication, ’17; MS, journalism, ’18), “Luz sin fronteras, A light across the border” (KBNT Univision 17 San Diego). SOCIETY OF PROFESSIONAL JOURNALISTS: JOVRNALISM staff, national awards, first place, Immersion Journalism; Best in Show, “Homeless Realities.” 2019 L.A. PRESS CLUB’S NATIONAL ARTS AND ENTERTAINMENT JOURNALISM AWARDS: Jaylene Lopez (BA, journalism, ’21), second place, “A poem From Coast to Coast” (Ampersand). L.A. PRESS CLUB: Steven Vargas (BA, journalism, ’20), first place, student category, “Life in the Time of the Coronavirus Contest.” 2019 CALIFORNIA JOURNALISM AWARDS: Dawn Megli (MA, journalism, ’13), first place, “Surviving Borderline” (The Acorn). GOLDEN MIKE AWARD: iz Kern (BA, broadL cast journalism, ’96) was awarded a Golden Mike as news anchor/reporter of the KMJ News Team. 2019 ATLANTA PRESS CLUB AWARDS: Nick Valencia (BA, broadcast journalism, ’05) Award of Excellence in TV Reporting, CNN.

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Anita Little At 9 years old, Anita Little started her first newspaper, The Early Bird: two pieces of paper stapled together and shared with her small group of subscribers. Little grew up in Fort Worth, Texas, obsessed with news and wanting to be “one of the people breaking news and sharing stories about the world.” She later joined her high school newspaper.

Little left Texas for USC Annenberg so she could live in and report from Los Angeles. She became a staff writer for the Daily Trojan and secured numerous internships, including at Angeleno Magazine, EIN News, the Girl Scouts of America and Ms. magazine. The summer internship at Ms. came after one of her professors invited the magazine’s thensenior editor, Michelle Kort, to speak to their class. “She talked to us about feminism, and I was super impressed,” Little said.


USC Annenberg Magazine


After graduating in 2011 with a bachelor’s degree in print and digital journalism, Little continued to tap into the Trojan Family. She landed her first job as an editorial assistant at NBCUniversal in L.A. following a referral from Chris Smith, clinical professor of communication. Little covered fashion and style for The Style Network blog. “It was a great introduction to the field that I wanted to be in and a great first job to have,” she said.


A year later, Little returned to Ms. magazine’s L.A. office, where she worked as an associate editor for three years, covering gender and women’s reproductive rights, womanism and Black feminism. “I was exposed to all of these amazing feminist women, including Gloria Steinem and Dolores Huerta, who informed what I wanted to do throughout my career,” she said. Photo by John Sciulli / Getty Images


Little left Ms. in 2015 to take a position as senior editor at Religion Dispatches, which was then housed on USC’s campus and run by Diane Winston, Knight Chair in Media and Religion. There, Little continued writing about women’s reproductive rights for the non-secular online news source. “A lot of reproductive-rights groups are in the South and run by Black women,” Little said. “They were Christian and religious, and I had the chance to tell these stories in a different way. It was a really fulfilling period of my life.”

“There’s a lot of power in being able to write something that makes people care and possibly change their minds.” Anita Little ’11 Los Angeles


Little’s focus on women’s issues led her to join Playboy Magazine as features editor beginning in 2018. “I’ve always been interested in sexuality and how women are seen in our cultural landscape,” she said. One highlight for Little was arranging an in-depth article on Tarana Burke, the founder of the #MeToo movement. In a tweet to promote the article, Little wrote, “Feel privileged to work in a space that allows me to pursue these projects and puts full support behind them.”

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