Press gangs in political fights

Media and Political Conflict
April 10, 1998

Academic studies of the media rarely command the respect of professional journalists - especially in Britain. The proliferation of media studies at universities is another of their bugbears. How is it possible for students to "learn" about the media, especially when the literature they read is so divorced from the realities of the so-called real world? The only way to learn it is to do it. Besides there are more media wannabees than jobs available, especially for those steeped in pointless postmodernist theories about soap-operas.

These are just some of the prejudices, myths even, that are hard to dispel. In fact, from the field's humble origins in the social sciences in the United States about 50 years ago, communications and media studies have generated an enormous literature reflecting the subject's increased importance.

Most practical media courses employ journalists or former journalists to teach - and it is not difficult to imagine the pressures that such people are under in our research assessment exercise-driven environment. The theoretical courses, those that attract most media venom, have become a very broad church, with inputs from sociology, political science, law, philosophy, history and sometimes the sciences. A combination of the practical and theoretical is the route chosen by the more successful courses, which recognise that communications is an inherently multi-disciplinary subject.

But the medium is not the message. The message is the message. If journalism can be defined as the communication of information from the few to the many, media performance in reporting who says what to whom and with what impact becomes an issue that should concern every citizen. The media, though interesting as a subject in their own right, do not operate in a vacuum. Where the critics do sometimes have a point is that some academic studies of the media forget this.

In this clearly written, jargon-free, theoretical work, Gadi Wolfsfeld claims that he wants to "put the politics back into political communication". He succeeds in this by constructing what he terms a "political contest model", which sees the media as part of a larger contest taking place between individuals and groups battling for political control.

There are five main arguments. 1. "The political process is more likely to have an influence on the news media than the news media are on the political process." 2. "The authorities' level of control over the political environments is one of the key variables that determines the role of the news media in political conflicts." 3. "The role of the news media in political conflicts varies over time and circumstance." 4. "Those who hope to understand variations in the role of the news media must look at the competition among antagonists along two dimensions: one structural and the other cultural." 5. "While authorities have tremendous advantages over challengers in the quantity and quality of media coverage they receive, many challengers can overcome these obstacles and use the media as a tool for political influence."

The book's subtitle is News from the Middle East. A series of case studies is chosen to illustrate how the model applies to political conflicts such as the Gulf war, the intifada and the Olso Accords. Wolfsfeld concludes that the media's role in these crises, respectively, were that of "faithful servant" to authority, advocates of the "underdog" and as "semi-honest brokers".

Wolfsfeld recognises that no one model can explain the complexities of why the media behave in different ways at different times. Another model may indeed have originated from the media itself. Media studies may have had a poor press, but that has not prevented students making it the fastest growing subject area of the 1990s. Young people see the media's odd behaviour and want to comprehend it; it is central to their understanding of their world. Perhaps this growth says more about the impact of the media than any amount of theorising, although this book will prove an invaluable voyage of discovery.

Philip M. Taylor is reader in international communications, University of Leeds.

Media and Political Conflict: News from the Middle East

Author - Gadi Wolfsfeld
ISBN - 0 521 58045 5and 58967 3
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £40.00 and £14.95
Pages - 254

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