The Media Education Manifesto, by David Buckingham

Book of the week: Suzanne Franks assesses the state – and future directions – of media studies

October 3, 2019
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“Media studies” and its role in the curriculum have been a subject of controversy and argument for many a year. Parts of the academy love to disparage the subject, as do many mainstream journalists. But it also has staunch defenders who uphold its role as a worthy and valuable area of study. This is a slight volume by a well-respected emeritus from Loughborough who has worked for many years in the field of media and communications studies. It is primarily a manifesto promoting the crucial importance of media education for school-age children, but there are some relevant points for higher education.

David Buckingham makes a distinction between “media literacy”, much favoured by everyone from politicians to major media companies, and “media education”, which has a far more critical and investigatory role. He quotes the late Tessa Jowell who, as the UK’s culture secretary, already argued in 2004 that “in the modern world media literacy will become as important to our world as maths and science”. Meanwhile, the media giants delight in providing charitable support to ventures that promote media literacy – for whatever motives. Take, for example, Google’s support for the Global Media Literacy Summit and many of the projects funded through grants from its Digital News Initiative. Buckingham argues that this kind of literacy is superficial and focused only on explaining and promoting a series of tools necessary for daily life in the modern era, where mediatisation is embedded into so much of what we do – both at work and play. Crucially, it circumvents the vital contemporary questions about regulation of these industries. In contrast to this he characterises media education, usually located in a media studies curriculum, as a means of enabling citizens to adopt a critical stance towards the world around them.

This ongoing dispute about the place of media studies in secondary and tertiary education has led to various dilemmas and debates. Many of the subjects studied in school (English, mathematics, science and so on) and accepted as part of the exam syllabus are there without controversy. But “media studies” often has to fight its way on to the curriculum. What is interesting is that English – now firmly part of every mainstream syllabus – was not regarded as a “proper” academic subject in the 19th century, so fashions can certainly change. Today, by contrast, English and the study of texts are at the heart of any core curriculum, while the status of the media studies A level (among others) continues to provoke arguments. It remains one of the subjects that certain Russell Group universities may sniff at when considering their undergraduate entry requirements.

Echoing these attitudes but from a different perspective, many journalists and commentators have chimed in with attacks on the concept of studying the media. The late Brenda Maddox, for example, said that “it reeks not only of trendiness…but of political correctness”. Likewise, the military historian Anthony Beevor declared that “media studies is seen as a bad joke as far as employers are concerned”. “‘Soft’ subjects” such as these, he adds, “make me rather angry because it is a betrayal of the students. They think that they are getting a real qualification and in fact they have been conned.” Plenty of others, including veteran broadcasters such as Michael Parkinson or John Humphrys, have weighed in with similar comments.

In a further twist, this is not the only arena where the concept of media studies is subject to criticism. Another series of objections comes from within the academy. We find fault lines in some institutions between the teaching of media practices such as journalism and the academic study of media and communication theory. It is not inevitable that the two areas are in conflict, but in the worst cases there is thinly veiled hostility between those who identify as practitioners determined to produce job-ready graduates and colleagues who have never been near a newsroom and focus on the academic study of the media. Journalists often fail to recognise the media, newsrooms or motives that are described by media academics. Media scholars, by the very nature of their work, are frequently involved in critiques of media practice and demand reform in working practices and resource provisions that have little bearing on reality, which itself breeds further resentment.

There have at the same time been many powerful public defences of the place of media studies as a worthy area of research and teaching. Professor John Ellis of Royal Holloway, University of London, formerly a TV producer but now a leading light in the field, gave a vigorous response in 2015 to one attack on media studies as a “Mickey Mouse” subject. And Professor James Curran of Goldsmiths, University of London (co-author with Jean Seaton of Power without Responsibility: The Press and Broadcasting In Britain, which has gone through many editions since it was originally published in 1981) delivered an excellent keynote address to the 2013 Media Communication and Cultural Studies annual conference entitled “Mickey Mouse squeaks back”. He identified a “long term press crusade against media education” and produced in response a strong justification of its role in the academy. His conclusion was that, far from being a soft option, courses in media studies were often highly demanding and made vigorous intellectual demands upon their students.

A year later, I also gave a keynote at the MECCSA conference and used it to make a plea for the two camps – media practice and media theory – to understand and respect each other more. But it was unclear how far the audience in the room and beyond was inclined to listen.

Buckingham’s manifesto is self-evidently a polemic, very much in support of the media studies project and promoting its role in the secondary (and even primary) school curriculum. He makes a number of interesting points about how children need to fully understand the ways in which their data are being used and potentially abused. Fake news naturally makes a prominent showing.

Yet the world of teenagers is changing rapidly and much of the content Buckingham highlights is pretty obvious to anyone familiar with this. As a co-author of a bestselling parents’ guide to teenagers, Get Out of My Life, I have seen the dramatic pace of this change. This was originally published in 2002, has been superseded several times and is now about to come out in a fourth, much revised edition. What started as a discrete chapter about “the electronic world” now infuses pretty much everything: changing technologies and media consumption affect how teenagers relate to the world, their parents, school, friendships and wider social life. Buckingham does not quite take account of this. He discusses media education, for example, as it relates to issues such as cyber-bullying and mental health. Yet these matters are already embedded into the whole personal, health, social and economic education curriculum and that is how they are best framed. Today we – and especially young people – live and breathe a media environment that is relevant to pretty much everything. We need to conceptualise understanding and dealing with the media for pupils and indeed students as integral to everything else, rather than standing alone. The emphasis should be on this overall coherence whereby media education is fully integrated as part of the wider curriculum. Its significance is well accepted, but its position within teaching and learning is still not always clear.

Suzanne Franks is professor of journalism at City, University of London, the author of Women and Journalism and co-author (with Tony Wolf) of Get Out of My Life: But First Take Me and Alex into Town.

The Media Education Manifesto
By David Buckingham
Polity, 144pp, £35.00 and £9.99
ISBN 9781509535873 and 9781509535880
Published 5 July 2019

The author

David Buckingham, emeritus professor of communication and media studies, was born in London and says that he’s “always been a Londoner”, adding that “the city can be a challenging place to live, but I love its energy and diversity, and its depth of history.” The first person in his family to go to university, he studied English at Cambridge but found it “quite a narrow experience. It wasn’t until I did teacher training (at London’s Institute of Education) that I came across more challenging ideas about language, politics and culture. It was that – as well as a personal interest in film and television – that led me towards media studies.”

The author of more specialist books such as Public Secrets: EastEnders and Its Audience (1986) as well as Beyond Technology: Children's Learning in the Age of Digital Culture (2007) and Video Cultures: Media Technology and Everyday Creativity (2009), Buckingham is convinced that “much of the public debate about young people and media is out of step with the findings of research”. It was this that led him to produce a “manifesto” setting out “a really clear, succinct argument for the general reader, without oversimplifying the issues at stake. I want to show the continuing relevance of established ideas and educational strategies when it comes to tackling new phenomena such as social media and so-called fake news.”

Asked about the need for media literacy (and who benefits from its lack), Buckingham responds that “the media are central aspects of culture, politics and the economy – and increasingly of our social and intimate relationships as well. If we fail to provide young people with the critical perspectives to understand the media, it’s much easier to manipulate them. In the 21st century, learning about media should surely be a basic entitlement.”

Matthew Reisz


Print headline: Touching every aspect of life

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