Whither media studies?

Guest blog by Tom RowlandTom Rowland 

Last week’s announcement of the ‘A’ level results provided an opportunity for sections of the press to indulge a pet obsession of bashing media studies as an academic discipline.

“Media studies and general studies have continued their miserable decline, losing 7,000 candidates between them in a single year”, pronounced a columnist in The Daily Telegraph.

Media Studies down 9.34 per cent: Communication Studies down 16.57 per cent, said The Daily Mail under the heading: “What’s in and out of fashion. Number of entrants per subject in 2013 compared to 2012”.

Even the FT couldn’t resist a little dig;  school-leavers who are struggling to find work are flocking to economics while interest in subjects such as media studies is waning, it reported.

The negativity is a particularly British obsession which you won’t find in the US where there is a much more healthy interchange between academics researching media issues and the media itself. The attitude found depressingly often in some British newsrooms, that studying the workings of the press in a systematic and critical way should be a bar to working in the business, would be greeted with incomprehension by most in the US.

Natalie Fenton, Professor of Media and Communications at the University of London’s Goldsmiths College, naturally enough is in the firing line so I asked her what she thought of the latest attacks.

The Leveson Inquiry provides ample evidence that the study of the media is more critical than ever before, she argues.

“Sadly, certain newspapers will simply see it as another reason to try and rubbish those who seek to research and understand better what they do and what this may mean for society more generally,” she said.

Fenton went on to argue that just as the media are fundamental to our social and political worlds, so is the study of them.

“To ignore this or worse, to deny it, is either shockingly naive or reveals a self-protectionism that should now be immediately obvious to anyone,” she said.

Her colleague at Goldsmiths, Prof. James Curran,  has written a very good paper analyzing the uneasy relationship with the catchy title  “Mickey Mouse squeaks back,” which I would thoroughly recommend. It is available here.

Needless to say, one obvious explanation for the fall in numbers this summer –  that young people don’t want to enter an industry revealed as having (with, of course, notable exceptions) atrocious standards and lousy working practices – didn’t occur to any British newspaper.

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Join the discussion and tell us your opinion.

Máire Messenger Daviesreply
August 22, 2013 at 12:41 pm

“Even the FT couldn’t resist a little dig; school-leavers who are struggling to find work are flocking to economics while interest in subjects such as media studies is waning,” Does the Financial Times, of all papers, really not see any connection between studying economics and studying the media? It’s depressing how ill-informed our so-called quality papers are about Media Studies. Why don’t they b****y well look at a couple of syllabuses? Or some standard texts? I like this comment too: “one obvious explanation for the fall in numbers this summer – that young people don’t want to enter an industry revealed as having (with, of course, notable exceptions) atrocious standards and lousy working practices – didn’t occur to any British newspaper.” But also, please everyone – can you all remember that newspapers and journalism are not, by any means, the only career openings for media studies graduates, including those who wish actually to work in the media. (And not all of them do). Some will wish to go into broadcasting; web design; other sorts of design; photography; computer game production; other sorts of computer and digital technology; advertising; market research; public relations; teaching; further academic study; even politics. And they do. FGS.

Tom Rowlandreply
August 26, 2013 at 7:20 am
– In reply to: Máire Messenger Davies

Hi Máire,
Yes, I quite agree with you, there seems to be a great deal of uninformed posturing on the part of most critics of Media Studies.

Even the most cursory examination of the syllabuses reveals programmes that are both demanding and potentially hugely rewarding.

Core modules typically include elements on the relationships between media and democracy, popular culture and media and power. To these a whole range of options are added creating broad and stimulating degrees. Take the options list at Sussex, for example. James Curran at Goldsmiths points out, this list includes ‘Media, Memory and History’, ‘Media, Publics and Protest’, ‘Media and Music’ and ‘Viewing Women’.

As he says ,“At the heart of most attacks on media studies is the assumption that a field which examines ephemeral content must be inherently lightweight.”

How can a university degree, it is argued, that takes seriously Sex and City be considered remotely serious?

“What this attack fails to grasp is that the media are the starting point, not the sum, of media studies.  Analysis of the media provides a means of investigating the politics, economy, culture, social relations and imaginative life of society.”

You’re right to pull me up on the list of career options available and in the case of traditional newspaper print journalism one can’t help wondering why on earth people still want to go into what has become, in part, a declining and degenerate business.

Tim Footmanreply
August 22, 2013 at 3:13 pm

Your last point only holds true if we assume that higher education in the UK is sufficiently degraded that all students simply choose the subject that most closely correlates with the sort of employment they intend to seek at the end of their course; in other words that universities no longer provide education, but offer training instead. So you study accountancy because you want to be an accountant; chemistry because you want to be a chemist; media studies because you want to work in the media. Is that all that education is for? Has Gradgrind really won the war?

In fact, there’s no reason why a media studies course shouldn’t offer the same sort of intellectual rigour as a traditional humanities subject such as history or philosophy; rather than giving a narrow focus towards a specific career path, it could take a graduate down any number of avenues. I worry, though, that under current financial and ideological pressures, it will never get the chance.

Tom Rowlandreply
August 26, 2013 at 8:11 am
– In reply to: Tim Footman

Hi Tim,

Yes you are right. And I have always argued that narrow, career-orientated degrees are a mistake for most – if you go off the narrow focus as a life-long calling, then all of that dull training was probably a bit of a missed opportunity and you could have been reading something more interesting – rather than memorizing lists of dry facts so you would know to unfasten widget six before rotating widget seven – or whatever.

But it worries me how many newspaper UK editors have such animosity towards academics studying their sector that they can hardly be in the same room. If the local consultant cardiologist felt the same way about academic medical researchers from the Heart Foundation I suspect we would all have concerns about the sanity of the consultant or at the very least worry what on earth the consultant thought he or she was up to.


Imelda Finnertyreply
August 22, 2013 at 3:29 pm

John Humphreys, doyen of BBCr4 today programme has particular contempt for Media Studies and rejoices in his own success without a university education. Could these two be related? Is he one of a generation who grew to senior positions in the press, radio and tv in the ’80s and onward without specialist training and education? When Humphreys sneers I have not heard Brenda Emmanus who has been BBC TV Arts correspondent mainly for the 6 o’clock News for about twenty years forward to say she did a Media Studies degree. Former Head of Chanel Four, Paul Jackson mentions his Media Studies degree when asked but I have not heard him defend the discipline for itself.
In the ’80s Media Studies was characterised as someone sitting on a comfy armchair watching telly. (That is only part of it.)
We like to watch a lot of tv and use lots of other media, it must be time to grow up and get beyond that short-sighted view.

Tom Rowlandreply
August 26, 2013 at 7:47 pm
– In reply to: Imelda Finnerty

Hi Imelda,

Hi Imelda,
Yes, a good point. I listen to Today most mornings and Humphreys is rightly respected as a great interviewer but the anti-intellectualism of some of his positions is out of date and – frankly – silly. As Evan Davis (1st in PPE, Oxford; Master of Public Administration, Harvard) gets more and more of the big political interviews I suspect Humphreys knows this, even if he is not going to admit it.
Trouble is that owning up to having studied the dread “Media Studies” is going to act as a bit of a dog whistle, likely to set every saloon bar big mouth into snarling mode so perhaps senior journalists who have done a course would rather duck a tedious and unwinnable spat with people who (literally) don’t know what they are talking about.

Yet Another Hacked Off Conflict of Interest – Guy Fawkes’ blogreply
August 23, 2013 at 10:45 am

[…] of the press to what our children should be learning at school. This time they’ve been irked by the decline in students studying Media Studies, presumably a secret conspiracy organised by the […]

August 23, 2013 at 1:55 pm

What the hell does this have to do with media standards?
How many media studies graduates have jobs as journalists in the national media?
How many of Brian Cathcart’s graduates?

Tom Rowlandreply
August 26, 2013 at 7:50 pm
– In reply to: chump23

I think the media studies academics act as the custodians of media standards, if only because there is nobody else doing the job and the newspapers certainly have fallen down in this respect, as Leveson demonstrated. So that is why I think they are important.

Robert Reynoldsreply
August 25, 2013 at 9:44 am

Dear Tom,

Thanks for highlighting ‘life under attack’, for media studies as truly in all fields, all building on disputable history, even in the world of our own ideas and beliefs, let alone the cultural universes of science, the arts and public affairs.

Each generation has its own victories, and it is natural for Professor Curran to look back on distant “narrow intellectual horizons”, and “a now discredited mass society thesis”, to focus on more recent experience of “periodic attacks” on the industrial achievements of “communications in a new form”, implicitly with more cultural relevance a threat to established “journalists’ jobs” and perhaps titles.

Freedom of debate – ‘in conscience’ – will be fully and universally enjoyed only with settled democracy, understood and so agreed as being in equal partnership. Even when born into genuine democracy, growing-up confident in belonging as equal citizens, we will always be ‘born ignorant’, and always will have questions to be asked of our professionals, of their beliefs and practices.

In our present plight, extremes of suspicion are bound to attend ‘battles for rigour’ in all fields. Media studies will always be amongst those disciplines required to follow all debates, charged then with trying to rise above their perfect storm, fairly to reflect ‘all views’ and able to present them through the lens of potential shareability, for all, our democratic guide to morality and rationality.

In a truly democratic world, the tasks of journalism will still be challenging, but ‘in it together’ more satisfying to all. People will move more freely in and out both of the media and politics, in part shaping and in part ‘living with’ (rather than corrupted by or trapped within) emergent allocations of support for research, for teaching and for student numbers.

Meanwhile, here in the jungle, we battle on, in hope of better days, paradoxically relying on individuals to counter individualism, on the momentum of institutions to bring about their own reform.

In some rational faith!

Tom Rowlandreply
August 26, 2013 at 7:53 pm
– In reply to: Robert Reynolds

Thanks Robert, you make some interesting points.
Best, Tom

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