When senior journalism student, Maria NeCastro of Machias, Maine, embarked on her Honors College thesis, she was inspired by Ida Tarbell’s muckraking work “The History of The Standard Oil Company.”
Muckrakers were a league of American journalistic reporters and novelists in the late 1800s to early 1900s seeking to raise awareness of societal issues and expose corruption. Although the modern cultural definition of muckraking is associated with tabloid writers, it also includes investigative journalists.
With an internship with UMaine’s Division of Marketing and Communications and plans for a career in public relations, NeCastro, 21, is finding a way to combine both her journalistic passions in her final project as a UMaine student.
Seniors in the Honors College are required to complete a thesis, which will also serve as NeCastro’s journalism capstone. The psychology minor’s project “Muckrakers vs. Public Relations: The Struggle to Shape Public Opinion,” explores the relationship between modern muckrakers and public relations forces that try to minimize damage from groundbreaking reports. She hopes to benefit future investigative reporters by showing how public relation strategies borrow from journalistic techniques to undermine independent, investigative reporting.
“As one of my mentors told me, seasoned journalists make some of the best public relations professionals. In the case of a scandal a journalist can borrow the schemes of the corporate public relations specialists to find any and all missing pieces from the corporation’s press releases and public announcements. While a corporation may seem to provide a thorough message, there is always more investigative research to be done to find the whole truth that the public deserves,” said NeCastro.
What inspired you to chose this thesis?
Since taking CMJ 211 (Journalism Studies I: Introduction and History) during my very first semester at UMaine, I have been fascinated with the idea of muckraking. I fell in love with the work of Ida Tarbell, a muckraker who wrote “The History of the Standard Oil Company” as part of a series of articles that were published in McClure’s Magazine in the early 1900s. When I was beginning to come up with ideas for my thesis, I knew that I wanted to study something related to the field of muckraking and investigative journalism, yet I wanted to be able to relate the work I would be doing to the career I hope to pursue in public relations.
Which “modern muckrakers” will you be researching?
I’ll be writing about Rachel Carson (author of “Silent Spring”), Barbara Ehrenreich (author of “Nickel and Dimed”) and Eric Schlosser (author of “Fast Food Nation”). Each of these extraordinary authors were and are some are the best investigative journalists of the mid-20th and early 21st century. Their work called for change and educated many about issues, from the environment to the dangers of unhealthy eating.
Doing a thesis is a huge commitment. What benefits do you gain from doing one? Why is it worth it?
Writing a thesis is about researching and writing about something that is significant to the writer. I have found that it is also about learning to collaborate with faculty who have expertise in the topic being studied. It may not be something that’s worth the time commitment in the eyes of everyone, but I am grateful that it serves as my senior capstone in journalism.
Not every student at UMaine gets the opportunity to conduct a thesis — or chooses to. What made you decide to taken on the project?
Before I began taking courses in the Honors College, I was not sure that the course would be right for me, but as time went on, I realized how beneficial the whole Honors sequence can be to an education. The thesis process serves as a way to apply the great Honors College themes of philosophy, history and literature in a final project that is really relatable to both my education and my career.
The Honors College creates a special experience for UMaine students. What has your experience with the Honors College been like?
There was nothing I enjoyed more in my two years of taking the Civilizations course (a sequence taken for four semesters by all students in the Honors College) than sitting down in a giant Neville lecture hall and listening to top scholars and speakers explain the concepts of everything from Plato’s “Cave” to Dutch art to Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring.” I really loved the idea of being able to learn something beyond the basics.
What is your favorite memory from your time with Honors?
It was when my father, a Medieval scholar who teaches at University of Maine at Machias, lectured on Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales.”
What other activities, groups or projects are you involved in on campus?
I am involved with the UMaine chapter of HerCampus, an online publication. I’ve been writing movie reviews for the publication for over a year now and love being able to write about fun topics while collaborating with members of all different majors and interests. I’ve also written for The Maine Campus.
Why did you choose UMaine?
I decided to go to UMaine because it was close enough to home that I’d never get truly homesick, but also far enough away that I’d be able to grow up and become my own person.
Have you worked closely with a mentor, professor or role model who has made your UMaine experience better, if so how?
I think that this internship experience at the Division of Marketing and Communications has provided me with some of the best mentors and role models I could have ever asked for. It has been one of my most influential experiences. I love the feeling of the intellectual and creative community to which it has exposed me.
What is the most interesting, engaging or helpful class you’ve taken at UMaine? Why?
I think that my favorite class is Hollie Smith’s public relations course. It not only taught me about what the world of public relations, it also helped me understand my passion for the field. I also have loved taking psychology classes. The study of human thought and development will always fascinate me.
What difference has UMaine made in your life, helping you reach your goals?
UMaine has really helped me become a more independent thinker. I originally started out with an accounting minor, but after a few hits and misses, I came to the conclusion that it would be best for me to switch to a subject in which I was truly interested. UMaine made that process easy, and thus has helped me understand that life is full of people trying to find their way to happiness.
What advice do you have for incoming students?
This is some of the least followed advice in the world, but I’d say: Don’t procrastinate. I’ve found that there’s so much more time to focus on fun activities when you’re not stressed about getting all of your work done at the last possible moment.
What are your plans after graduating from UMaine? What has the Department of Communications and Journalism, DMC and/or your classes, done to help your career?
My journalism and communications background gained from UMaine and the Division of Marketing and Communications has helped me recognize my strengths and weaknesses, increase my communicative skills and realize my passion for the career field. After graduating, I plan to temporarily work at my summer job in my hometown while looking for public relations-related job openings in New England. Within a couple years, I hope to further my education with a master’s degree in a marketing and communications program.