Faculty Spotlight: Gheni Platenburg, School of Communication and Journalism
Gheni Platenburg is an assistant professor in the School of Communication and Journalism. Platenburg has a wide range of experience from prominent newsrooms to daily papers. Her research interests primarily fall at the intersection of race and media. More specifically, she studies the Black Press, black identity, media portrayals and pop culture. Prior to becoming faculty, Platenburg worked as an award-winning multimedia journalist in Florida, Texas, Alabama and Washington, D.C.
Student writer Elizabeth Phillips spoke with Platenburg about her most recent project and what brought her to academia.
What interested you about journalism?
I originally came to college majoring in business, and I thought that was what I wanted to do with my life. But the more I got into those classes the more I realized it was not for me. So, at that point, I decided to switch my major. I assessed my skills and English and history classes were always my strongest classes. So, I took a visit over to the journalism school because that seemed like that might be a good fit, and that was probably one of the best decisions I ever made. That’s how I ended up on this path, it was simply because I saw a good marriage between my skills and the major.
What made you want to specialize in the intersections of race and media?
Topics like race, politics, society and social justice are things that I grew up discussing in my household. It has always been at the forefront of my mind.
While in undergrad, I interned at a paper within the black press but eventually, I began to work in mainstream newsrooms, and in those settings, I was usually either the only person of color or the only black person in that newsroom. So, while everyone there was doing their jobs, all being the best journalists that we can be, it was very evident that my experiences were always a little bit different than any of my coworkers. My interest was born out of my personal experiences and this natural inclination that I have of being a storyteller. While I am certainly not a pioneer in this area, I think that there have been so many changes, particularly with new technology in journalism and societal changes that, for me, this is a way to contribute and give back to the industry. As well as those who have pioneered before me, both in terms of academia, in terms of race and media.
Is there a project that you are especially proud of?
I just co-wrote/co-authored a book that was published with Palgrave MacMillan looking at Lizzo, the singer, and how her personal identity that she has curated on Instagram compared to that of how the media perceives her.
What interested you about Lizzo in particular?
I wasn't particularly always passionate about Lizzo. It just kind of came about because of a project that got started about a year and a half ago, and it was around the time that Lizzo had just dropped her first official album. She was really making a name for herself as being a big black woman who is in the music space. She was breaking a lot of boundaries and presenting herself in an unusual way. Many people did not view her as appropriate because of her size. She was in the news and in everyone's conversations, and she has been a big advocate of not only of female empowerment, but black women empowerment and larger size women empowerment as well.
We noticed that she is very active on Instagram, and we were looking into some of the media coverage about her and while there was naturally a fair amount of negative coverage criticizing her, there was an abundance of positive coverage as well. We found this unusual because women who are larger in size, black, or female rappers, do not typically receive this same positive attention. For some reason, she was breaking a lot of those barriers. Looking further into this reaction, we discovered not only that Lizzo is a trailblazer in this space but also the changing of societal thoughts surrounding women of color and more acceptance of different body types.
What made you decide to continue working as a freelance journalist for the Washington Post Talent Network while teaching at Auburn?
I consider being a journalist as being part of my identity. So, it was hard for me to just quit cold turkey. It is important to stay in the newsroom because we are teaching in such a dynamic field. There is always new technology and different approaches to doing the work. If you are someone who has been out of the newsroom for an extended period of time, it can be difficult to keep up with those trends.
What do you enjoy most about teaching journalism?
I feel like I’ve got the best of both worlds. I always wanted to work as a journalist, but I also wanted to be involved in academia. My undergrad professors were great role models to me, and I am elated that I have the opportunity to do the same for current students.
Journalism is often the first draft of history and so knowing that I am also able to contribute in that way while helping cultivate the next generation of journalists who will continue with this work brings me joy.
Do you have any advice for current students studying journalism?
I would just advise them to be flexible and learn all that they can. I still do a lot of professional development and try to welcome and embrace any opportunity to learn something new related to journalism. For example, the U.S. census held a series of webinars this summer. For me, those webinars were extremely interesting and helpful, and I would have loved to see journalism students taking advantage of opportunities like this. This will not only help you stand out among your peers but also demonstrates your desire to work in this field because you are taking the time to sharpen your skills at home.