Isn’t it finally time to take media studies seriously?
It was a bittersweet moment for media studies scholars recently when a top journalist admitted that the UK media was too elite aligned.
Speaking at the Edinburgh International Television Festival in late August, and with the Grenfell Tower tragedy in mind, Jon Snow of Channel 4 called on the media to renew their obligation to understand and connect with the lives, concerns and the needs of ordinary people.
The media industry very rarely admits that it needs to put its own house in order. Yet the relationship between media and power is something that media studies have analyzed for decades, since it actually began in the early days of television. Media studies as a discipline grew out of literary criticism and early cultural studies, and like sociology before it, another early influence, struggled to make a name for itself.
Aided by an industry that doesn’t understand why it should be studied let alone scrutinized, the public image of media studies has long been one of the subjects that corrupts our universities with innocuous lectures on the importation of soap operas and the celebrity cult. The academy, too, has traditionally struggled to see past the idea of an impostor subject with a limited theoretical basis and an obsession with the popular.
Media studies are indeed often concerned with the popular, but this is one of its strengths. It is firmly embedded in society, in the communication, cultural understandings, concerns, and sometimes even manipulation, of the mass of ordinary people. Long before anyone else, media studies challenged the once utopian view of the internet, examining the representation of race and gender in the media and analyzing the economic and political power of new media moguls.
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All mass media content, from news and drama to advertising, video games and social media, is about the stories we tell about ourselves as a society and as individuals. So we must surely understand who produces it, how it is produced, what it says and what effect it has?
This is perhaps even more important in times of crisis or when society finds itself at a crossroads. As we struggle to understand how Brexit happened, how Donald Trump became president and why populism is on the rise, it’s no coincidence that the media is under scrutiny, especially in the new digital age.
Today, more than ever since the invention of the first true mass communication technology in the early 20th century, the media have a profound effect on our social, political and economic lives. As a result, media studies often take an interdisciplinary approach to their inquiry, encompassing politics, economics, and psychology, as well as law and ethics. While some may see this as a flaw, in our frenetically interconnected world, perhaps this should be recognized as another strength. The very fact that many other disciplines are now integrating the media into their own inquiry attests to their growing importance.
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Media studies scholars are also increasingly working with government, regulators and institutions as they belatedly and critically engage with the new digital age and its fallout. Likewise, the creative industries continue to be the fastest growing part of the UK economy, accounting for one in 11 jobs, further attesting to the need to study the impact of media and build a workforce with the skills to support it.
Professional training in universities can be controversial, but students don’t just learn to be journalists, or just to be filmmakers. They learn to critically evaluate their cultural production, to understand that it can be part of a system imbued with causes and consequences. They learn that communication and its changing landscape must be understood not only by them but by everyone if democracy is to remain healthy.
Ironically, while government and the media industry now encourage greater awareness of the role and impact of communication, they still fail to make the connection to media studies.
Like it or not, media studies is one of the defining subjects of our time, so isn’t it finally time to take it seriously?
Louise Byrne is a part-time lecturer in journalism and mass communication at Richmond, the American International University in London.