Student Focuses Duke Experience on Points Where Media, Policy Meet

During her four years at Duke, senior Melissa Yeo has explored media from different angles: snapping photographs for The Chronicle, serving as a research assistant on media-related projects, interning for the Sanford School of Public Policy’s communications office and, finally, writing a thesis analyzing media coverage of the Fukushima disaster.

She started working at The Chronicle during the first week of her freshman year, and rose to photography editor during her junior year. Among the highlights were photographing President Obama during a visit to the Triangle, and twice shooting Duke-UNC basketball games. She currently serves as the creative director for Towerview, The Chronicle’s magazine.

Yeo, originally from Singapore, will graduate with a double major in public policy and environmental sciences and policy. The public policy major allowed her to combine the majority of her academic interests, she said.

“When I was trying to decide what to major in in college I was torn between history, economics and political science,” Yeo said. “Public policy presented itself as a mix of all three. It’s a way for me to do one major but study all the things I’m academically interested in.”

Her list of favorite professors includes Evan Charney, who taught Policy Choice as Value Conflict, environmental history professor Gunther Peck and Phil Bennett, who taught News as a Moral Battleground. Her closest relationship has been with Jay Hamilton, who taught Political Analysis for Public Policy.

Yeo started as Hamilton’s research assistant during the summer after her freshman year. Yeo’s projects over the next two years included evaluating the effectiveness of open government initiatives and assessing press access laws across states. She worked as his research assistant until her junior year, when, with his encouragement, she became his thesis student.

“Professor Hamilton really shaped my interest in media analysis and media economics, and strongly encouraged me to do a thesis,” Yeo said.

Initially, Yeo thought she wanted to write about media coverage of climate change. But, a personal experience led her to change her topic. She planned to study abroad in Japan during the summer after her sophomore year, but the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami led to the Fukushima nuclear disaster in March 2011, and her parents refused to let her go to Japan. She told them Fukushima was far from where she planned to study, but her parents insisted it was unsafe, citing what they had read in newspapers. Yeo said this prompted her interest in studying how media covered Fukushima.

Yeo’s thesis explored whether physical proximity to a domestic nuclear plant affected a U.S. newspaper’s coverage of Fukushima. She conducted a content analysis of more than 1,400 newspaper articles from 60 cities, coded each with 1 of 12 possible codes, found how much of each content type appeared, and measured that against the distance to the nearest nuclear plant.

“I was surprised by how clear and consistent the results from my data were,” Yeo said.

Yeo found coverage of U.S. nuclear facilities increased after the Fukushima accident. Newspapers closer to a nuclear plant demonstrated a greater increase in articles about nearby plants, while newspapers farther from a nuclear plant demonstrated a smaller increase. The changes were proportional to the proximity of the plants.

She also found that newspapers closer to nuclear plants provided more information about safety and the technological causes of the meltdown, while newspapers farther from nuclear plants tended to write about human interest and health implications. Her thesis earned highest distinction in the public policy major.

Yeo said writing a thesis taught her a lot about her academic interests and her working style, as well as how to set deadlines and effectively manage time.

I loved my thesis because I’m interested in media analysis, and I’m interested in Japan so everything came together,” Yeo said.

In her last semester at Duke, Yeo interned for McKinney, a Durham-based advertising agency. The experience was a change of pace from her other internship experiences, which include working as a research intern at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs in 2011 and as a communications intern for the League of Conservation Voters in Washington, D.C. After graduation, Yeo said she hopes to work with in some facet of communications.

“My thesis really helped solidify my interest in how people connect to policy, how people connect to ideas, and how policy and ideas are communicated to them,” Yeo said. “… I want to do something in the media world that explores that connection more.”