Pranav Athimuthu

Pranav Athimuthu headshot.
The program offered me valuable opportunities to interact with faculty that were outside my discipline, but with whom I shared a common commitment to solving a pressing world problem.


Psychology and Political Science ’23

Project Team

At an institution like Duke, it can often be easier to find oneself passionate about solving an overarching societal problem than pursuing a specific major. Take, for instance, the societal problem that I care most about: democracy. 

In the past decade, the health of the American democracy has fallen under significant threat. With the rise of misinformation and political polarization in public discourse, an electoral system that favors certain voices over others, increasing rates of crime and legislative efforts directed against citizens of marginalized identities, and a lack of credible political information, it should come as no surprise that the world’s oldest democracy has a lower freedom rating than it did just a decade ago. This problem demands an interdisciplinary approach: the way we interact as citizens is as much a psychological, sociological, educational and technological matter as it is political. 

Pranav and team members seated at a panel making a presentation.
Pranav (right) speaking about his team’s work during the Democracy in America event in April 2023, hosted by Polis and Bass Connections

As a psychology and political science double major with a certificate in decision sciences, I spent my four years at Duke integrating perspectives from two fields that aren’t usually mentioned in the same sentence. From pursuing independent research into how humans perceive political and nonpolitical information, to joining a research team investigating the impact and equity of cash bail policy in North Carolina, to examining how immigrant populations harness the power of religion to enter American political life, I had the opportunity to understand how each of these fields contributes to the conversation of fixing our democratic institutions.

In my senior year, I wanted to undertake a culminating project that would allow me to unite my prior experiences in these fields with those of other students and scholars to meaningfully contribute to democratic reform in some way. Rather than taking the route of a thesis, which I felt would have sequestered me into one major, I chose to join the Social Provision of Information for Effective Democratic Citizens Bass Connections team sponsored by the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy.

The project united scholars from all the fields I’ve mentioned thus far — and many more — to explore journalistic reforms that would equip citizens for American political life. The primary focuses of our endeavor were to investigate the role of local news in creating politically informed citizens, and to create the framework for a media literacy curriculum that would teach children to critically consume political information and avoid misinformation.

Each of the project’s subteams spent the year tackling a different part of this question, whether by researching the legislative history of media literacy programs in other states, interviewing professionals in the space to gain insights on what to include in our curriculum, or leading focus groups to better understand Durham community members’ relationship with the news.

My own work involved interviewing key people in the media literacy world for insights on what sources to consult when developing our curriculum, as well as how to recruit the supports of school professionals and parents to seamlessly implement the framework in Durham Public Schools. With the guidance of faculty, I created reports that summarized these findings along with the historical success of media literacy legislation in other states, such as Illinois and Texas, laying the groundwork for a future media literacy policy effort in North Carolina.

Additionally, under the mentorship of one of the team’s graduate researchers, I worked on a separate project that assessed the potential of a quantitative model to estimate the cost of funding a nationwide network of local news outlets. Given the important role local news plays in keeping people informed and engaged with politics, and the massive news deserts that are emerging as these outlets shut down due to revenue constraints, the findings of our project carried great potential in helping both policymakers and journalism grant writers isolate the parts of our country requiring the most support.

My work involved expanding the model to make cost-figure estimates for each of the country’s census regions. I generated a map that displayed this data alongside points indicating major sources of journalism grant funding across the nation to shed light on which areas receive the least funding while simultaneously requiring the most resources.

Pranav speaking at a podium during a conference.
Pranav (at the podium) presenting during a conference at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media

Our subteam had the chance to present the findings from this project at a local journalism conference hosted at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media, where we shared our insights with professionals in the journalism space and received feedback on how we could adapt the model to other stakeholder needs. I also had the wonderful opportunity to author a white paper detailing our findings and methodology to ensure that the work could be carried forward and expanded. As an undergraduate during the pandemic, the chance to present my findings at a conference constituted both an important professional opportunity and a satisfying conclusion to both my work on the Bass Connections team and my preceding research experiences. In addition, I helped represent my team at the Democracy in America event hosted by Polis and Bass Connections.

Before I joined Bass Connections, I had always heard it pitched as an introduction to research for undergraduates that had no experience, and hence, I wasn’t sure what my involvement would look like as a senior with prior projects under my belt. I now realize that Bass Connections is just as great an opportunity for anyone who is looking for a culminating research experience and isn’t quite sure that a thesis within their major is right for them.

The program offered me valuable opportunities to interact with faculty that were outside my discipline, but with whom I shared a common commitment to solving a pressing world problem. I went in with no prior experience in journalism or media studies, and left after having given a conference presentation, authoring a paper in my own name, making many valuable academic connections, and with a much broader perspective on what interdisciplinary, team-based research looks like.

June 2023