Time in Ghanaian newsrooms inspires recent doctoral student's research

Wunpini Fatimata Mohammed defended her dissertation at Penn State in May 2019. Her research has an interdisciplinary focus on media in Ghana, her home country. Credit: Jonathan F. McVerry / Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa.— Starting at a young age, Wunpini Fatimata Mohammed had an ear and eye on the media. She liked language, and she got all the language she needed by watching television news.

“It wasn’t just the content. I was really interested in how it was done,” Mohammed said. “It was TV news first, but when my hometown established radio stations, I started paying attention to radio, too.”

Her journey to earning a doctoral degree from Penn State’s Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications began 5,000 miles away in her hometown of Tamale, Ghana, when she was working at one of those radio stations after high school. Mohammed delivered the news and learned everything she could during her time in the bustling newsroom.

Unfortunately, a journalism major was not an option at the University of Ghana. So, Mohammed volunteered at the campus radio station and majored in English and Spanish. On the college’s station, she hosted talk shows about topics she was interested in, like gender, books, music and current affairs. The student-run station gave her more opportunities to be involved in many different areas of media.

After graduation, Mohammed was not interested in a standard 9-to-5 job but still wanted to maintain a connection to the news she grew up admiring. The possibility of researching the newsrooms intrigued her, and she decided to focus on a few observations she made at both the commercial and student radio stations.

“I noticed the newsrooms were patriarchal,” she said. “The way female hosts were judged, and the way male hosts were judged were different. I could see it and I quickly became interested in that.”

Mohammed focused on the gender representation in Ghanaian media while earning her master’s degree at Michigan Technological University. She made it a point to take an interdisciplinary approach to her studies and integrate it with her real-world experiences.

For example, while at a radio station, Mohammed noticed the English-language newsroom essentially ran the show, instead of the indigenous-language newsroom.

“Ghana’s indigenous languages (like Dagbanli and Gonja) were being marginalized,” Mohammed said. “The news gathering process would start in English, and then they would need to present it in a different language,” making life harder for indigenous reporters. “It was mind-blowing.”

The indigenous journalists and on-air hosts had to go through “a very complex cognitive process to produce the news compared to the English newsrooms who could just read the script,” she added. “It’s all going on in the background. The audience doesn’t know it’s happening and that’s why it has to be documented.”

Mohammed won two awards for this research from the International Communication Association: top-paper for African Journalism Studies in the Global Communication and Social Change Division, and second prize student paper from the Ethnicity and Race in Communication Division. She presented the research at ICA’s conference in Washington, D.C., in May.

After her time at Michigan Tech, Mohammed wanted to maintain the interdisciplinary focus of her research and target the important issues of her culture and country from many perspectives. The Bellisario College was able to provide those opportunities, offering the ability to work with scholars in the film, journalism, media studies, public relations and telecommunications fields.

Mohammed added even more breadth to her research by minoring in Women’s, gender and sexuality studies, and taking classes in African studies, while at Penn State.

“I saw an opportunity to learn from all of these perspectives,” Mohammed said. “I don’t have one specific area that I focus on, so the Bellisario College and Penn State were a perfect fit.”

Anthony Olorunnisola, head of the Department of Film-Video and Media Studies at Penn State, said although covering many areas of research as a doctoral student is not rare, it is uncommon — especially for researchers in Mohammed’s generation.

“Wunpini’s multidisciplinary focus underscores her own academic preparation and curiosities,” he said. “It is an indication of her ability to work independently, as well as in collaboration with others.”

Mohammed defended her dissertation in May. The project focused on the burgeoning film industry in northern Ghana. She said there once were few media outlets in her native language in Tamale. Professionals in the local media decided to create a film industry. For the dissertation, Mohammed documented the early days of the industry firsthand from a political/economic perspective.

“I interviewed a filmmaker for two hours. He was in the first film ever produced” in Tamale, Mohammed said. “At first, I thought I’d do a textual analysis of the films, but I can’t do that if there’s no history. So, I interviewed filmmakers, distributors and consumers. It was a huge project and it was all in my native Ghanaian language.”

Mohammed said the research connects her to her culture, as well as assists her on developing effective and helpful media. She shares all her research with the residents of her hometown and makes it a point to explain what the results mean to them.

“This makes me feel really fulfilled,” she said. “It makes me feel like the work is valid and valuable to the people who don’t speak English.”

In addition to the recognition from ICA, Mohammed was awarded the Djung Yune Tchoi Graduate Teaching Award from the Bellisario College in April.

Teaching is nothing new for Mohammed. She taught Spanish for a year after earning her undergraduate degree as part of her national service in Ghana, and taught composition at Michigan Tech. At Penn State, she has taught COMM 205: Gender, Diversity and the Media; COMM 420: Research Methods in Public Relations and Advertising; COMM 410: International Mass Communications and COMM 419: World Media Systems. It’s an aspect of academia she thoroughly enjoys and will continue at the Bellisario College now that she has defended her dissertation.

“I enjoy teaching. I come from a family of teachers,” she said. “My mom is a school principal. My younger brother is a teacher. My dad has taught. We all love teaching,”

Olorunnisola attributes Mohammed’s success in teaching to her creativity and readiness to engage students in a multidisciplinary way.

“Across the board of her diverse teaching engagements,” he said, “Wunpini brings a flair for teaching students in unique ways.”

Mohammed wants to continue doing collaborative, interdisciplinary research that benefits the people of her home country and town in the future. She has many projects in the works, but she will first take a much-deserved break this summer. This fall, she is teaching COMM 410: International Mass Communications and COMM 419: World Media Systems.

Last Updated June 14, 2021