It was a bittersweet moment for media studies academics recently when a high-profile journalist admitted that the media in Britain were too aligned with the elites.
Speaking at the Edinburgh International Television Festival at the end of August, and with the Grenfell Tower tragedy in mind, Channel 4's Jon Snow called on the media to renew their obligation to understand and connect with the lives, concerns and needs of ordinary people.
Very rarely does the media industry admit that it needs to get its own house in order. Yet the relationship between the media and power is something media studies has been analysing for decades, since it began in fact 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, has struggled to make a name for itself.
Aided by an industry that cannot comprehend why it should be studied let alone scrutinised, the public image of media studies has long been one of a subject that is corrupting our universities with trivial courses on the import of soap operas and the cult of the celebrity. The academy, too, has traditionally found it hard to see beyond the idea of an impostor subject with a limited theoretical base and an obsession with the popular.
Media studies is indeed often concerned with the popular, but that is one of its strengths. It is firmly grounded in society, in the communication, cultural understandings, concerns and sometimes even manipulation, of the mass of ordinary people. Long before anyone else, media studies was questioning the once utopian view of the internet, examining race and gender representation in the media and analysing the economic and political power of the new media moguls.
All mass media content, from news and drama, through advertising, video games and social media, is about the stories we tell about ourselves as a society and as individuals. So surely we need to understand who is producing it, how it is produced, what it is saying and what effect it is having?
Perhaps this is even more important in times of crisis or when society is at a crossroads. As we struggle to understand how Brexit happened, how Donald Trump became president and why populism is on the rise, it is no coincidence that media are under scrutiny, especially in the new digital age.
Today, more than at any time since the invention of the first truly mass communication technology in the early 20th century, media are having a profound effect on our social, political and economic lives. As a result, media studies frequently takes an interdisciplinary approach to its enquiry, embracing politics, economics and psychology, as well as law and ethics. While some may see this as a flaw, in our frantically interconnected world, perhaps it should be acknowledged as another strength. The very fact that many other disciplines now embrace media in their own enquiry attests to their growing significance.
Media studies academics are also increasingly working with government, regulators and institutions as they belatedly 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 to build a workforce with the skills to support it.
Skills training in universities may be controversial, but students don’t just learn to be journalists, or just learn to be film-makers. They learn to critically assess their cultural production, to understand that it can be part of a system that is steeped in cause and consequence. They learn that communication and its changing landscape needs to be understood not just by them but by everyone if democracy is to remain healthy.
Ironically, while both the government and the media industry now promote greater awareness of the role and impact of communication, they still fail to make the connection with media studies.
Whether we like it or not, media studies is one of the defining subjects of our age, so isn’t it finally time we took it seriously?
Louise Byrne is a part-time lecturer in journalism and mass communications at Richmond, the American International University in London.