Indiana University

Indiana University Journalism

Moscowitz’s dissertation earns top AEJMC award

Jessica Birthisel | June 15, 2009
Leigh Moscowitz
Courtesy photo
Leigh Moscowitz, Ph.D. ’08, will receive the Nafziger-White-Salwen Dissertation Award at the AEJMC conference in August.
What do you get when you combine a timely topic, a strong work ethic, ambitious methodologies and a “dream team” committee? For Leigh Moscowitz, Ph.D. ’08, you earn the the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication’s Nafziger-White-Salwen Dissertation Award.

“I was fortunate enough to do my dream project,” said Moscowitz, who just finished her first year as an assistant professor in the Department of Communication at College of Charleston, S.C., in a phone interview last week. “I am incredibly humbled by this prestigious award. This is not something that I thought I had in the bag.”

The AEJMC award, presented annually since 1984, recognizes outstanding dissertation research in journalism and mass communications. Her dissertation, “For Better or For Worse: News Discourse, Gay Rights Activism, and the Same-Sex Marriage Debate,” explores media portrayal and treatment of same-sex marriage through multiple research methods. She’ll receive the award, which includes a cash prize, at the AEJMC convention Aug. 7 in Boston.

Moscowitz was celebrating her daughter’s kindergarten graduation at the park when she received the phone call from her dissertation adviser, associate professor Radhika Parameswaran, who broke the news. Parameswaran describes learning about Moscowitz’s award as one of the happiest moments of her life.

“There’s something very, very special about seeing your student win an award,” explained Parameswaran. “You want to sing from the rooftops. With your own work, you don’t do that.”

Parameswaran credits Moscowitz’s work ethic and attitude.

“With Leigh, there’s never ‘don’t tell me anymore or I’m going to scream,’” said Parameswaran. “She soaks up constructive criticism.”

Both Moscowitz and Parameswaran said the timely topic of the project, gay marriage, led to its positive reception.

Although the debate around gay marriage continues to evolve, Moscowitz’s work covers the issue from 2003-2004. As Moscowitz explained, though “it feels like eons ago,” it was at this point when the topic became a major issue in mainstream cultural politics.

“It was the perfect storm to make for an awesome dissertation topic,” said Moscowitz. “It’s an issue that really defines who we are as a nation in some ways, whom we allow in and whom we keep out. Marriage has always been this line in the sand.”

Moscowitz said she was especially interested in the ways images of gays and lesbians in the media began to change during this period.

“I became really fascinated because here’s a group that has been historically cast as anti-family values, and now they are appearing in the mainstream news media under a flowered canopy, saying their vows,” said Moscowitz. “This was a very different kind of representation emerging in mainstream media texts.”

Gay marriage also is an issue Moscowitz felt invested in, something she says sustained her through the intense work involved in the project.

“I think as scholars, we’re drawn to those issues that tug at our heartstrings,” she explained. “For me, this was one of those issues. This is going to be one of those things I have to sit down and explain to my children when they’re older.”

The project featured an ambitious mixed methodology. In one phase of the project, Moscowitz traveled to various parts of the country in order to interview gay rights activists who were on the front lines of the debate.

“Doing interviews with people is a critical part of a research project, because I think media and text contain only so much,” she said. “It was an incredible opportunity and really transformed the entire project. I wanted to find out, what were the stories they were trying to tell? What are the particular struggles that they face in trying to shape this issue for what is, essentially, a heterosexist news audience?”

The project also included a textual and content analysis of selected print and broadcast coverage of key moments in the debate during this time frame, such as the 2003 Goodridge v. Department of Public Health case in Massachusetts that resulted in legalizing gay marriage, and San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom’s decision to issue marriage licenses to gay couples in 2004.

“It all combined for a very rich project,” said Moscowitz, whom Parameswaran praised for her handling of a mixed methodology. “It was able to illuminate different aspects of the same issue.”

Moscowitz says she could not have had such success without her committee.

“The only other thing I want to make clear is how indebted I am to my ‘dream team’ committee, as I call them, especially Radhika,” said Moscowitz. “I share this award with them. It was their mentoring and training that allowed me to do this expansive mixed-method project.”

One of her committee members, Roy W. Howard Professor David Weaver, was in Spain when he heard about the award, but wanted to express his congratulations via e-mail.

“It is a great honor for Leigh to win this award,” he wrote. “It’s a credit to Leigh, our school, and also to Leigh’s dissertation adviser, professor Radhika Parameswaran.” Moscowitz’s other committee members include associate professor Betsi Grabe of the Department of Telecommunications and associate professor Elizabeth Armstrong of sociology.

For Moscowitz, this is the second award of the spring. The students in her department voted her the department’s best undergraduate teacher for 2008-2009. She is the program’s first first-year teacher to receive the honor.

“I had a really exceptional year,” said Moscowitz. “It’s neat to be recognized for both research and teaching.”

She hopes the award will fuel her other plans.

“My, hope is that this will get my foot in the door with book publishers,” said Moscowitz, who has one piece of the project slated for journal publication next spring. “The next step is to write a book proposal by August and hope that when I go to AEJMC, I’ll be able to scope out some book publishing opportunities.”

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