Returning the media product to society

Media Organisations in Society . First edition - The Media in Britain - On Screen Rivals - Media and Society
May 26, 2000

The Labour government's vision of the role of the media is, by now, relatively clear. British television, film and music are to be exported to compensate for the decline in traditional manufacturing industries, while the creative skills at the heart of media production are to be embraced as the harbinger of the impending knowledge economy. Conceptualising the media in terms of efficiency and competitiveness has, however, led to a downplaying of non-commercial priorities and public-service objectives. So what should students prioritise when attempting to theorise the relationship between the media and society? Should they concentrate on the programmes, newspapers or websites with which they are familiar, on the audiences who consume these texts, or on the underlying features of the environment in which these texts are produced? Should they stress the power of media owners in the production process or the routines around which media institutions are organised? The strength of these four books is that they all, in different ways, seek to highlight the connections between these areas and to engage with a sociological framework that draws on approaches from political econ-omy and cultural studies. Their success in clarifying the social role of the media, on the other hand, is far more uneven.

The two edited collections provide valuable and contemporary accounts of media debates and developments. Both focus on themes of the impact of media concentration, media globalisation and new technologies, and they link the theoretical concerns to an examination of a wide range of media forms and texts.

Although covering the ground, Adam Briggs and Paul Cobley's The Media: An Introduction , The Media in Britain (1998) is a sturdy guide to the British media industries, aimed at undergraduate students. The book is divided into sections on institutions, regulation and representation, the first two of which provide a very useful overview of specific media industries and policy issues. There is, however, a marked contrast between the more substantial critical essays by, for example, Colin Sparks on the press and James Cornford and Kevin Robins on the new media and the straightforward summaries of recent developments in advertising and popular music. The final section, composed of 13 case studies examining media content, is similarly uneven with the more successful contributions (on girls' magazines, media racism and Trainspotting ) managing to integrate the theoretical concerns identified earlier into original critiques of media material. The eclecticism of the contributions may appeal to some students; others may find the lack of overall conclusions and generalisations to be a drawback.

Media Organisations in Society will be of interest to both undergraduate and postgraduate media students and consists of essays written by current and past researchers at Goldsmiths College. While the collection shares many of the same themes as The Media in Britain , it is more global in scope and concerned, in particular, with questions of power and democracy. James Curran emphasises the need for a "widescreen", interdisciplinary approach to media analysis, an idea that is developed in a lengthy and relevant introductory essay that summarises the radical political economy approach and its critics together with a restatement of the utility of the public-sphere debate. The extensive up-to-date bibliography is also a welcome resource for students wishing to pursue the issues raised.

The book is then structured into sections on media as "industry", "battlefield" and as "cultural product" - a somewhat arbitrary division given the overlapping areas of interest of many of the contributions. However, the essays themselves are generally well written and well researched and tackle topics that illuminate the current dynamics of media power in original ways. Jonathan Burston's account of the industrialisation of the "mega-musical" is a lively attack on the notion of an all-pervasive post-Fordism in the cultural industries, while Korinna Patelis provides a very thorough critique of "internet-philia" and the determinist strands of thought that underpin many contemporary paeans to the internet. The final section is especially strong. Curran on the practices of literary editors, Keith Negus on social mediation in the music industry and Nick Couldry on "non-media people's" perceptions of media power are all sophisticated case studies that highlight the complex ways in which media institutions are linked to wider social practices. The collection is not as uniformly strong as Curran and Michael Gurevitch's reader, Mass Media and Society (1996), but it nevertheless makes a valuable contribution to contemporary media research.

The two single-authored texts are more limited in scope and delivery. Michael O'Shaughnessy's Media and Society is more realistically an introduction to media studies for sixth-form and first-year undergraduate students. As such, it occupies an increasingly crowded field with Tim O'Sullivan et al's Studying the Media (1998) and Gill Branston and Roy Stafford's The Media Student's Book (1999) providing very effective competition. On the plus side, O'Shaughnessy's book is very student-friendly and is written with pedagogical concerns to the fore.

Students are constantly invited to analyse the media in terms of their own media experience and their own considerations of pleasure and emotional engagement. Each chapter then contains a clear overview of points to be covered, together with several practical exercises, commentaries and a conclusion.

There are, however, some major issues that restrict the book's ability to reflect adequately on media and society. O'Shaughnessy claims that he uses the term "media world" throughout the book to refer to both the relationship between media and society and also to the fact that the world is increasingly constituted by media representations. In reality, the focus in the book is very much on the latter and on the ways in which mass media are providing us with more and more of the stories, images and discursive frameworks through which, he argues, we understand the world.

The emphasis, in other words, is far more on coming to terms with media discourses and representations than on analysing external constraints on how the media operate. There is, for example, a longer discussion of narrative structure and binary oppositions than there is of the various social and political factors that condition media practices. The very helpful model essay answers are also limited to a semiotic analysis of an advertisement and a textual reading of the opening of Blue Velvet - hardly anticipating the range of issues and methodologies for which a media student ought to be prepared.

The second problem lies with O'Shaughnessy's uneven choice of theoretical material. While some of the book contains very rudimentary reflections on studying the media, a substantial portion is devoted to (admittedly lucid) analyses of fairly complex ideas, from psychoanalysis and hegemony through to considerations of ethnicity, gender and the "posts": post-feminism, post-structuralism and post-colonialism. Basic media history, economics and politics, on the other hand, are omitted. Furthermore, I would have thought that while beginners in media studies would find these theories extremely difficult, more advanced students would find the introductory comments to be at too low a level. As a textbook on media and society, it suffers, therefore, from being too narrow and simultaneously too ambitious.

Jane Stokes's On Screen Rivals is an entertaining and original study of how British and American television have been represented in and influenced by their main rival, the movie business. Through a wide range of textual readings of films that deal with the phenomenon of television, Stokes raises the question "what does television mean?" and uses these varied representations to dismiss the idea of any fixed or deterministic response. Stokes describes the way in which one cultural technology relates to another as "technogenesis" and argues that this process has been important in shaping how we conceptualise different media technologies. For example, despite initial concerns from the film industry, the new technology of radio did not threaten film but actually expanded the popular taste for entertainment and thus the success of both media. This is clearly a line of inquiry that is particularly relevant today when considering the impact of the internet on "old media" and when trying to answer questions about the future of terrestrial television or print newspapers.

Stokes sketches out the history of the development of television in both countries and describes an intense relationship, marked by both cooperation and competition. The majority of the book, however, is taken up with her readings of dozens of films that illustrate the changing representation of television in films, from the movie industry's rant against television news ( Network ) to its endorsement of TV news as a way of framing its own narrative (Baz Luhrmann's 1996 Romeo and Juliet ). As purposeful as these readings are, the book is more suitable for film-studies students at undergraduate level than for media or cultural-studies students. Although Stokes frames the book as an exploration of the meaning of television, I would contend that she reveals far more about the priorities of film and relatively little about why we watch television or what we think of it. Her claim that "the meaning of television is a discursive construct of film" overstates the influence of film in shaping our attitude towards television. Stokes might equally have examined television's representations of itself (like The Larry Sanders Show ) and found that these were far more influential than even the most popular films she mentions. While the book fails to illuminate "what television means" at a broad, social level, it nevertheless succeeds in addressing why the big screen has been so fascinated with the small screen.

This relates to a final point about the potential introspection of media-studies literature, which conceives of industries being developed, texts made significant and professional routines made meaningful only in relation to other media industries, texts and routines.

The strength of the best work in the field lies in its ability to appreciate the specific elements of individual media practices and their interconnections, but to incorporate them into a wider social framework in order to reveal the dynamics, and not simply the details, of the media. As textbooks that take a genuine step in this direction, I would certainly recommend the first two collections reviewed here.

Des Freedman is senior lecturer in media and communications policy, University of North London.

  • Media Organisations in Society . First edition

    Editor - James Curran
    ISBN - 0 340 72014 X and 72015 8
    Publisher - Arnold
    Price - £45.00 and £14.99
    Pages - 292

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