Maria Armoudian answers a big question for the media
29 November 2019
Politics lecturer Dr Maria Armoudian says the news and issues website The Big Q is a calm port in a sea of chaotic media.
Dr Maria Armoudian, senior lecturer in Politics and International Relations, is sitting in an office surrounded by books poked into every available shelf space and on every flat surface. Although clearly not a Marie Kondo aficionado, she’s quick to point out that her home doesn’t look like this.
“It’s just that my office isn’t big enough for my book collection!” she insists.
Maria has clearly accrued a lot to read in the five years she’s been in New Zealand. She arrived from Los Angeles in July 2014 where she had lived for 27 years. Her career trajectory is varied, first music (she’s a singer/songwriter), then political journalist, then politics working in the California legislature for eight years, then another eight years for the city of Los Angeles as a commissioner. That’s when she decided to go back and study the whole system to “try to come up with some sort of answers to the problems that I saw in democracy”.
Once she had finished her PhD she saw the job advertised at Auckland. But she admits moving as a middle-aged person was difficult.
“The hardest part about moving to another country is that you have a community and dear, deep friendships in your home country, as well as family.
"You come to a place that’s really far away and you can’t go to your friends’ memorials. So you’re dealing with issues of your friends dying or your family dying yet you don’t have deep friendships here. That’s been the hardest part. I feel like I’ve started to develop those connections now, but it’s taken every bit of five years.”
Before her father died, both parents had visited her in New Zealand. Maria is trying to encourage her mother to visit for her 80th birthday, especially as Maria has bought a home here.
While she was doing her PhD, she had looked at the media’s role in different scenarios, from war, genocide and peacemaking to democratisation and policy issues.
“This included how the debate was framed around climate change. At the time, the media made it seem like we didn’t have a crisis and therefore they didn’t have to act yet.
“That’s an example of how the media has affected humanity.”
She says the media today is even more chaotic than it was then.
“People are all over the internet and social media creating disinformation. I’d looked at different models of media, thinking about it as a sort of DNA for society, telling us how to function within, and as, a system. People need to understand their roles, issues and science to function, especially in a democratic system.
“I looked at the traditional media and social media and the different ways in which messages were being relayed. Traditional media tends to be constrained by its need to make a profit. So we have these ‘news norms’ of making things sound dramatic and simplifying issues so people can understand them, or focusing on conflict even where it may not be.
“This primes people to have a lack of in-depth understanding of a broader or historical context and the civic nature of democracy … it has primed our emotions to seek out the dramatic."
The media primes people to have a lack of in-depth understanding of a broader or historical context and the civic nature of democracy … it has primed our emotions to seek out the dramatic.
For some years, Maria has been thinking about alternative models of media.
“I looked at government models, non-profit models and co-op models, including some that didn’t need to make a profit, but they did need to pay staff salaries. I thought a university-based media model was a good idea. We’re supposed to be the purveyors of knowledge, ascertaining the truth and discussing issues in a way that illuminates ideas."
The former journalist had already done something similar with her radio show in Los Angeles, The Scholars’ Circle.
“I thought, what if this University created its own media? What would that look like? The idea is you can bring people of different disciplines together to talk about a pressing issue. Not only do people learn more about the issue, but they also learn how to talk to each other.
“We’re seeking a truth, to solve a problem, to devise a solution – and that was also the purpose of The Scholars’ Circle. When I got to Auckland, I told the Dean of Arts, Professor Robert Greenberg, I’d like to try it here.
”The Big Q: The Project for Public Interest Media (thebigq.org) was born in 2016 after receiving funding from the Vice-Chancellor’s Strategic Development Fund. Maria encouraged colleagues to work with her on the project, alongside two experts in the Faculty of Arts Technical Services – Tim Page, a digital media specialist, and Mike Hurst, a learning technology specialist.
The site contains articles, podcasts and videos featuring academics from a number of universities discussing such issues as ocean pollution and climate change. The aim is to provide an alternative to soundbite-based journalism by creating scholarly but accessible material on a wide range of topics.
“The Big Q is a place where people can learn what we’re doing as scholars and deepen and broaden their knowledge. It’s a bridge between scholarship and the public, written in a way people can understand, not jargon, speaking to the issues of the day, but giving them context."
The website content is curated by a managing editor, a journalist with a public interest ethic who understands the mission.
“What I really want to do now is get more people involved and interested, to integrate it more into the University. If there are issues or topics that we know an expert wants to write on, then The Big Q is the place.
“We are also an outlet for our grad students to publish their research and findings in a reader-friendly way.”
She says the website The Conversation is probably the closest model to The Big Q, although much bigger. The Conversation website says it has around 80,000 registered academics globally and says after publishing on The Conversation, 66 percent of authors are contacted by media for follow-up interviews.
“The Conversation is a non-profit model supported wholly by universities, but they have more journalists working there. What we’re doing is a bit broader stroke ... we will run everything from a short piece to a 5,000-worder, as well as book excerpts, audio and video.”
Maria can see the benefit in raising public awareness of the impact of the University of Auckland’s research.
“The shorter pieces we run can lead people to want to dig more into the long pieces. What we want to do is stimulate people’s thirst for learning more so we can build more informed societies,” she says.
I’d like to have people who are actively involved in research and writing to think The Big Q is a good place to publish their findings.
“You can’t have a democracy function if people don’t understand scientific, environmental and political issues. If they don’t have fundamental knowledge, then how do we expect them to vote or to participate in a meaningful way?”
As well as articles from across many disciplines, The Big Q has featured around 100 roundtable interviews and run a number of live symposia such as The Politics of Climate and Disasters, in collaboration with the School of Law and the School of Social Sciences. These are recorded and made available on the website, and quite a few have been broadcast by RNZ. It has featured the work of around 100 academic staff and students and also collaborated with Newsroom and bFM to share content.
The Big Q has also been a great first step for student interns who can work there for a semester. But Maria would love to see more academics publish there.
“Maybe there’s still not a great enough awareness of The Big Q,” she says. “I’d like to have people who are actively involved in research and writing to think this is a good place to publish their findings. These people could, for example, be communicating about complicated, complex marine ecosystems in a way people understand, either through an article or even a video narrative.
“As well as an outlet to communicate scholarly research, we are studying and learning how to better communicate complex issues around science, politics and medicine in ways that help people engage. We want to learn more about the best ways to work with other schools in the University to communicate their research and findings.”
She has plenty of experts to develop The Big Q further.
“It was Tim, Mike and I who originated this and they are so good at what they do. Then Associate Professor Luke Goode (Media and Communications) got involved and later renowned documentary maker Professor Annie Goldson (Media and Communications), Professor Simon Thrush (Head of the Institute of Marine Science), Dr Manuel Vallee (senior lecturer, Sociology) and Dr Niki Harré (Psychology). We’re talking about how to improve awareness of the opportunities The Big Q offers.”
Maria, the author of two previous books, has a third sitting with the publisher after three years of research. It’s called Lawyers Beyond Borders and is about international human rights litigation. Her Armenian heritage has informed some of her research and certainly her interest in human rights.
“It’s made me sensitive to people who have faced genocide, colonisation and other egregious human rights abuses such as mass killings and torture,” she says.
“It has also made me aware of the propaganda used to demonise, blame and foment hate towards groups of people, so I’ve been motivated to dispel misinformation that’s been historically used as a weapon to gain power, land, wealth or cultural domination.
”Some of those themes have also made it into her songwriting. In 2005 she released an EP called Life in the New World with lyrics such as: “There is no water left for us, she said, please understand; They poured their seven poisons in the rivers; on the land, 40,000 acres of our farms now desert sand; To feed one hungry company, to fill the hollow man.”
Says Maria: “I originally went to university on a music scholarship and played in a variety of bands and ensembles – rock, world music and classical."
She’s been wanting to become involved in music again in New Zealand. How she will find the time is another big question.