Is media studies about to go viral?

Ever since it emerged from English departments in the 1970s, media studies has been routinely dismissed as the archetypal ‘Mickey Mouse’ degree. But in an era of fake news and media hegemony, has this multifaceted subject finally found its place in the zeitgeist?

October 10, 2019
Inflatable Mickey Mouse
Source: Getty

Joining the Mickey Mouse Club

I recently had a senior white, male academic manager (yawn) explain to me in some detail that he has no time for scholars with teaching qualifications. “Academics with education degrees are the worst teachers,” he whined. “Give me a great public speaker and use easy assessment. That’s a great teacher. That’s how you slash attrition rates.”

I laughed because I thought he was joking. Then I was filled with rage because – for him – ignorance was a strength. He meant it. He really meant it.

In our anti-intellectual times, when knowing is an inconvenience and feeling a priority, experience is a welcome substitute for expertise. Michael Gove’s proto-Brexit commentary – “I think the people in this country have had enough of experts” – has spread to our universities.

That is why media studies is disrespected: because “everyone” is on Facebook and uses YouTube. Supposedly, understanding media – like public policy – does not require particular expertise.

From its origins in the 1960s, this neglected if popular child of English literature has been condemned by the Harold Bloom School of Posh Pretension. Often taught at the former polytechnics and even occasionally by women, media studies is a Mickey Mouse degree meant for a Goofy who can’t quite manage “books” but might understand “films”.

Yet media studies is provocative in its quirkiness and dogged in its innovation. Its trick of combining production and theory – the doing and the understanding of the doing – is incredibly valuable. Tweeting is easy. Understanding why Donald Trump tweets is important. Laughing at Boris Johnson is predictable. Understanding why Oxbridge elitism must now be clothed in the jacket of the Scarlet Pimpernel’s bumbling fool is crucial.

Steps with Donald Duck advert

Media studies maintains a strong graduate employment rate because people who have studied it can work in a newsroom, a local council’s tourism department, an independent film streaming service or on a breakfast radio programme. They understand the how and the why of communication. They are agile workers in the gig economy, and they grasp the consequences of a portfolio career for themselves and others.

But this success – combined with the relentless Daily Mail attacks – means that media studies undergraduates rarely return for postgraduate qualifications. That is a problem, as we live in times where research into media literacies, intertextuality and multimodality can reshape our social and political landscape.

Media studies grazes the surface of interfaces to renew and grow important new ideas. It is bizarre – but so typical of the age – that the platforms and theories that matter so much are disrespected so pervasively through the treatment of the discipline that investigates them. It is media studies – not physics, not English and not economics – that can explain how we accept and live in a culture of lies and xenophobia, where shopping is the medication for any societal illness. It is a lighthouse in dark times, illuminating the path to a better way of living.

Groucho Marx famously refused to join any club that would have him as a member. Yet being a member of the Mickey Mouse Club of media studies makes me proud. I completed elite degrees in elite disciplines at elite universities, but they did not prepare me to understand our claustropolitan age.

Media studies is a neglected clifftop in our hurricane-battered age, but from this craggy, unstable intellectual precipice, the view is spectacular. And the opportunity it affords to resist, rally, poke and provoke is beyond even Donald Duck’s exuberant aspirations.

Tara Brabazon is professor of cultural studies and the dean of graduate research at Flinders University, Australia. Her recent book, Trump Studies: An Intellectual Guide To Why Citizens Vote Against Their Best Interests (Emerald Publishing), is co-authored by Steve Redhead and Rue Chivaura.

Fewer manifestos, more analysis

Media studies is not a discipline but a subject area that may include the analysis of texts (such as films or television programmes), industries (such as news organisations or TV networks) or audiences (such as fan cultures or consumer markets).

If the only criterion of what counts as media studies is a focus on media, then you can find media studies courses and scholars in a huge number of university departments. These include journalism, film studies, film and television production, television studies, advertising, English, cultural studies, information science, history, American studies, sociology, anthropology, economics, business, rhetoric, performing arts, theatre, new media, digital media, communication, area studies, art history and performance studies. You can find them in colleges of liberal arts and performing arts, and in professional training programmes in business and journalism.

Reflecting this diversity, media studies can be categorised as either one of the social sciences or one of the humanities. Social scientists apply qualitative and quantitative methods to analyse the effects of media texts and technologies on audiences. Some humanities scholars apply the work of critical and literary theorists to interpret or classify media texts or their representations of identities. Other humanities scholars employ an empirical approach, trawling archival and primary sources to document and analyse texts or the institutions that produce them. And the goals of these scientists or scholars may be more or less descriptive, prescriptive, normative, critical or analytical.

Thus, within media studies, one topic can be analysed from a great many perspectives. For example, the Netflix series Thirteen Reasons Why could be analysed by a social scientist for its potential effects on teen suicide rates; by a textualist for its representations of gender and race; and by a media industries scholar as an example of a programming strategy for an emerging programme distributor.

Students in TV studio

The advantage of this diversity is that a thousand flowers may bloom. But there are disadvantages, too. Potential students may be unable to identify which department or major or college offers an appropriate curriculum for them. Readers may find it difficult to locate scholarship spread across a variety of journals in allied fields. And scholars with similar interests may never learn from one another because they attend different professional conferences and publish in different journals.

This diffusion also leaves the field open to a charge of irrelevance or insubstantiality: without canonisation or disciplinary standards, media studies may seem more a fad than a field.

I am a scholar of media history, interested in understanding and empirically analysing media texts, technologies and institutions. And I think this is where the future of the field lies: not in prescriptive or predictive pronouncements and manifestos but in analysing the complexities of the economic incentives, cultural contexts and social structures that shape media texts, industries and audiences.

Instead of succumbing to the moral panics that arise with every emerging media technology, media studies scholars need to historicise and contextualise these fears, avoiding the mindless technological determinism that sometimes drives media punditry.

Social media platforms have allowed every user to be simultaneously a producer, distributor and consumer of media texts. Traditional information gatekeepers are increasingly disintermediated. Media business models are undergoing radical change. In such a world, we have a greater than ever need for expansive, robust and diverse media studies scholarship to help make sense of where we have been and where we are going.

Cynthia B. Meyers is a professor in the department of communication at the College of Mount Saint Vincent, New York.

Top of the class

“If media studies as an academic discipline is delegitimised then it becomes too easy to dismiss its critiques; critiques that often circulate around questions of power, influence, representation and value. This might be in the interests of politicians, even journalists, but it cannot be in the interests of an informed citizenry.”

This is the conclusion of Lucy Bennett and Jenny Kidd’s 2017 paper, “Myths about media studies: the construction of media studies education in the British press”, published in Continuum: The Journal of Media & Cultural Studies. They are spot on.

Journalists can overstate their entitlement to the public’s trust. In response to the threat posed to good governance by fake news, they tend to take the view that if only citizens were reminded of the value of “real news” – and were prepared to pay for it – democracy would be less fragile. Politicians, meanwhile, advocate a shallow, safeguarding response, calling for quick-fix media literacy schemes and initiatives to verify legitimate news stories.

But teachers, academics and students in the media studies community of practice take a more rigorous approach. And a year-long project that I recently led, bringing together US and UK media literacy researchers with teachers, librarians, journalists and young people, concluded that the best antidote to fake news would be to make media studies mandatory at school. Unlike the “giving fish” approach of reactive resources and small-scale projects focused on competences, teaching media studies in school teaches future citizens to fish for themselves.

Mickey Mouse graduation hat

Studying the mediation of the social world and the influence of media in all aspects of our lives has always been necessarily uncomfortable, and academically difficult, both to study and to teach. But it is becoming ever more necessary. Moreover, the healthy enrolment figures for university media studies courses suggest that students recognise this, even if the media themselves do not. Some credit can perhaps be taken by the colleagues from across the discipline that have provided deconstructions of the perennial “Mickey Mouse” attacks, often channelled through the subject associations.

The media’s antipathy to media studies amounts to a thinly veiled display of class prejudice: an othering of a non-traditional subject often taken by non-traditional students at non-traditional universities. Professional journalists are, after all, no more representative of the general public than politicians, given the nepotism and networks of privilege that operate around media internships and recruitment. As the Guardian journalist Owen Jones, a friend of media studies, put it in 2018: “If you have so many people from such similar backgrounds – from a small and relatively privileged slither [sic] of British society –  then similar prejudices and worldviews will reinforce each other.”

And while it may be true that progression to postgraduate study is lower in media studies than in other disciplines, that is surely not unconnected to the relatively high employability of media graduates. It is also related to the subject’s status as a semi-permeable membrane that takes in influences from a wide range of other disciplines and feeds graduates and scholarly work back into them. One person’s lack of disciplinary coherence is another’s interdisciplinary contribution to knowledge.

Media studies is always a fusion of theory and practice, increasingly practised in the “third space” between industry conventions and counter-narratives for social justice. As such, students are usually assessed with regard not so much to their static knowledge as to their ideas for “doing media differently”.

Our project captured a range of different views on the subject’s essence, but one common thread was the impossibility of disconnecting the study of media from the study of power. So if healthy numbers of undergraduates are engaged in the critical deconstruction of mediated power, that is surely a very healthy thing in a democratic society. But, equally, it’s easy to see why the media might see that as a threat.

Julian McDougall is professor in media and education and head of the Centre for Excellence in Media Practice at Bournemouth University. He is editor of the journal Media Practice and Education and was principal investigator of the Media Literacy Versus Fake News project, funded by the US embassy in London, in 2018-19. His book on the topic, Fake News vs Media Studies: Travels in a False Binary, is published by Palgrave Macmillan in October.

Weak-minded celebrity wannabes need not apply

Recently retired BBC broadcaster John Humphrys provoked much ire recently when he gratuitously repeated his familiar prejudices about media studies.

During an August interview with the shadow education secretary, Angela Rayner, about the Labour Party’s plan to move to a post-qualification admissions system, Humphrys suggested that the amount of time spent by students at university should be reduced instead. “If you want to be a doctor, it’s going to take you years to learn. But if you want to do media studies…do you really need three years?” he asked. When Rayner suggested that listeners would decide for themselves, Humphrys speculated that “most of them will say you need about five minutes”.

But Humphrys is by no means the only person to voice this familiar refrain. In 1993, for instance, John Patten, then the UK's education secretary, announced an inquiry into why young people “flock to the seminar room for a fix of one of those contemporary pseudo-religions like media studies”. He noted that “for the weaker minded, going into a cultural Disneyland has an obvious appeal”. And one of his successors, Michael Gove (a former Times journalist), lamented that schools deliberately steer students towards easy-to-pass subjects such as media studies. His remarks came after a report into the supposed dumbing down of education compared “soft” subjects like media studies very unfavourably with “proper” subjects such as maths and physics. The Independent newspaper wrote up the story as: “Tories to tackle the media studies menace”.

As well as the belief that media studies lacks rigour, the attacks are also fuelled by a complaint that the subject falsely lures students into anticipating glamorous employment in the media and “cultural industries”. In 2016, for instance, the senior broadcaster and journalist Sir Michael Parkinson claimed that the subject attracted “fame-hungry youngsters wanting a short cut into reality television”.

Media student being interviewed

But the reality is that, over several decades, media studies has become among the most successful and internationally well regarded subjects in UK higher education. Drawing on both the social sciences and humanities, it includes programmes ranging from the highly vocational to the largely theoretical. But none of these variously labelled courses are easy, requiring extensive reading and rigorous understanding of methods of investigation and analysis in various disciplines.

Nor, as the journalist Janet Street-Porter once claimed, is media studies (which she dismissed as “a joke”) a career dead end. Few students are naive enough to assume that media, communications and cultural studies degrees are a direct path to an instant career in front of a camera or managing a social media corporation. But employment rates across a very wide range of sectors exceed those found among graduates in, for example, maths, English, history, biology or chemistry.

So why the antipathy? It would be a dereliction of duty if universities failed to offer students the opportunity to study rigorously the institutions and processes that make up such important elements of their lives, and it would be bizarre if they did not engage in relevant research. Yet such work, often rooted in critical traditions, might well be challenging to cherished assumptions and practices in the worlds of politics and media, such as around the representations of minorities.

Far from being “weak-minded” celebrity wannabes, the young people attracted to media studies want to intellectually examine their place within systems of representation and relations of power that often deny their own experiences. This is much more than the crude vocationalism that many politicians wish our education system to be reduced to: it is a genuine urge to have a voice and make meaning in and of our world. What more noble and important aspiration could there be for any university field?

Peter Golding is emeritus professor at Northumbria University, where he was pro vice-chancellor (research and innovation). Milly Williamson teaches in the media, communication and cultural studies department at Goldsmiths, University of London. They are, respectively, secretary and vice-chair of the UK’s Media Communications and Cultural Studies Association.

Key statistics: media studies in the UK and the US

Media studies graph

Digitisation may lead to obsolescence

Media studies is an umbrella term that has always sheltered a wide range of intellectual endeavours. Yet, as a named discipline, it has started to feel dated, as the impact of digitisation continues to transform societies and cultures, nowhere more so than within the media itself.

One of media studies’ common origin stories is its often fractious route out of English departments. Film studies came first, with its focus on auteur and genre theory, feminist film theory and so forth. Inclusion of the “baser” popular cultures, such as television and music, soon followed, and intellectual approaches were expanded further, edging into politics, sociology and cultural studies.

Most film and media studies departments from this evolutionary pathway remained primarily theoretical in their focus, although some introduced production classes, engaging with documentary or experimental film – and, more recently, with digital cultures.

People pass in front of European HQ of Facebook

But media studies also emerged from another direction: communications. These disciplines are often more, or even purely, practical in their basis, encompassing journalism, public relations, TV production and documentary. The theoretical strand in this instance – particularly critical theory – tended to play second fiddle to skills-based teaching.

These different origins have led to frequent tension within media studies between the theoretical investigation of culture and its production. “Thinkers” complain that creative work was mere craft, or that makers failed to understand the ideological implications of their work. Practitioners retort that academics don’t understand the real world.

Institutionally, however, these tensions have been muted as departments have met somewhere in the middle, turning to “creative practice as research”, to include production that is research-rich and, hence, compatible with the goals of university study. Conveniently, too, creative practice addresses the widespread student desire to achieve skills that could help them enter the workforce. PhDs with creative or production components are flourishing, and theory itself has seen the emergence of strands of reflexive academic study, such as production studies or screenplay studies.

Yet media studies in all its manifestations is wrestling with the digital sphere. It must continuously update itself to incorporate digital practices such as coding, web design, podcasting and mobile media production. It has also had to address the huge social and political impact of digital transformation, focusing, for example, on the positive and negative impact of social media, the shifts in media economics and ownership, technology’s fraught relationship with democracy, the production of fake news and now deep fakes, and the impact of state and commercial surveillance.

The consequence of all this volatility is that media studies is subject to regular restructuring processes, constantly being expanded, rebadged and repartnered. Its core purpose – the recognition and analysis of how mediatised our world has become – will continue to be highly relevant. But whether it can survive as a visible discipline remains to be seen.

Annie Goldson is a professor in the department of media and communication at the University of Auckland.


Print headline: Don’t take the Mickey: media studies comes of age

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