One step ahead of the game

March 17, 2006

Harriet Swain says media studies reading lists are forever playing catch-up with trends, but James Curran and Jean Seaton have cracked the canon

If you're a member of the iPod generation, and you're studying a subject devoted to modern methods of communication, how much time are you going to have for books?

This is a question that concerns many media studies lecturers, whose own time remains dominated by books - writing them, reading them or working out what on earth to put on undergraduate booklists.

Philip Schlesinger, professor of film and media studies at Stirling University, where he is director of the Media Research Institute, says many of today's students have a much more consumer-based approach to their education. "What has happened very markedly in the past five years or so has been a growing emphasis on textbooks and user-friendly collections and an increasing use of web-based resources," he says. "It has changed the nature of the game."

Media studies is particularly vulnerable to these changes. Those in the field are under constant pressure to keep up with the latest trends, the latest publications and the latest student obsessions - especially as, in certain ways, students are more media savvy than their tutors. Jeanette Steemers, an associate editor of the new-media journal Convergence , says that before 2000, reality television was hardly thought about, then suddenly students all wanted to write dissertations about Big Brother but there was not much material on the subject. "Now there is a lot of stuff on reality TV, and we see it moving on again," she says.

Steemers says that the volume of published material in media studies has mushroomed in the decade that she has been an academic and that distinguishing the useful from the useless is increasingly time-consuming.

At the same time, there have been significant regulatory changes, catalogued on the Department for Culture, Media and Sport website, combined with Ofcom investigations, think-tank reports and business developments - all of which have to be ploughed through. "Sometimes there is too much, and that can be quite overwhelming for students as well," she says. For her, the only answer is to point students in the direction of key texts that look at the overall context of what is happening. "They cannot possibly read everything," she says.

But identifying key texts is difficult. Schlesinger says: "I'm not convinced that there is a canonical framework at all in media studies." He argues that while 20 years ago it may have been possible to cite a handful of texts that every media studies student would have read, the amount of material produced in the field now has made this virtually impossible.

James Curran, professor of communications at Goldsmiths, University of London, refers to widespread use of "anthologies and photocopies".

Curran hasn't done too badly out of anthologies himself. Mass Media and Society , a collection of writings by academics from around the world, which Curran edited with Michael Gurevitch, of the University of Maryland, has become a key international textbook and is in its fourth edition. Peter Golding, honorary secretary of the Media, Communications and Cultural Studies Association, describes it as "well regarded and authoritative". He also praises Curran's Power without Responsibility , co-authored with Jean Seaton, which he says every media studies student should be expected to read.

Denis Mcquail is another name that regularly crops up on booklists. According to Golding, he is "to media studies what (Anthony) Giddens is to sociology", thanks to his text Mass Communication Theory , now in its fifth edition. Golding attributes Mcquail's popularity to being long established, proven and comprehensive - "a one-stop shop" - while its author has managed to achieve standing in the field without appearing to have any particular axe to grind.

He also praises the new Open University course textbooks for being "thoroughly produced and well organised" as a comprehensive collection and Sage's Handbook of Media Studies and Handbook of New Media.

McNae's Essential Law for Journalists , by Tom Welsh, Walter Greenwood and David Banks, now in its 18th edition, has been a media studies stalwart for decades, although rivals do exist - Sage is publishing Media Law for Journalists by Ursula Smartt later this year.

After this handful of generally recommended texts, the field becomes wide open, with lecturers' choices dictated by specialisms. Curran's favourites are Daniel Hallin and Paolo Mancini's Comparing Media Systems , which he describes as "very different but very clever", and Michael Schudson's The Sociology of News because "he writes like an angel".

These are both American books, although the body of work in UK media studies is not dominated by US authors. This is partly because the two media worlds are so different but also because UK authors have become well respected in the field.

"British media studies defines the subject in a different way from the US, which tends to be rather uncritical and journalism focused, whereas British media studies has tended to look at the full range of content on the media," says Curran, who has taught in the US.

But in the relatively young field of new media, a UK-US collaboration is tipped as one to watch - the Handbook of New Media: Social Shaping and Social Consequences , by Sonia Livingstone, a London School of Economics professor, and Leah Lievrouw, an American.

There is, though, no typical media studies booklist. Each is a unique mix of whatever books, journal articles and other materials have caught the lecturer's attention. Perhaps one of the few consistencies will be in the list of websites, which are likely to include URLs for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Ofcom, the BBC and most national newspapers.

Golding has mixed feelings about the benefits of the web. Although he acknowledges that having many journals available online is helpful, he says that many academics struggle to wean students off the internet and to recognise its limits and lack of quality controls.

Schlesinger is more concerned that new ways of learning mean that historical perspective is lost. Students need a sense of how the subject ties in with longer-term social shifts to recognise when something is genuinely new.

Schlesinger fears that media studies students are narrowing their perspective in other ways, too. "Access to the net means that you can construct a vision of the world that is much more related to your individual interests rather than to the globalised scope that you might get from British journalism or TV current affairs," he says.

While he admires the ability of many students to pursue their own interests with almost obsessive dedication, he is concerned that they are not reading as widely or as deeply as they once did. "I'm not convinced the book is quite what it was for previous generations," he says.

Golding is more optimistic. He is confident that media and cultural studies students probably read as much, if not more, than most other students.

"Students simply have less time," he says. He adds that academics have to be more organised in the way they put reading lists together to make them more user friendly.

Many have already considered this issue. Alexis Weedon, director of the Research Institute in Media Art and Design at Luton University, says that at his institution, module documents that set out weekly reading lists and a bibliography are available online and include URLs to articles and sources such as TV programmes. He says students tend to follow up web links, download journal articles and surf the web before buying books. Many even wait a few weeks before buying an essential book - just to see if it really is essential.

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