Media studies is so tainted by its reputation as the archetypal "Mickey Mouse" subject it should consider rebranding itself under another name, according to one of the field's leading academics, writes Phil Baty.
As the sector prepared to meet this week for its annual conference in Brighton, Tim O'Sullivan, an executive member of the Media, Communications and Cultural Studies Association (MeCCSA), said that the "negative popular perception" of the field was so established that a name change should be considered.
Professor O'Sullivan, head of the department of media and cultural production at De Montfort University, said: "It is important to stress the positives and to refute the ill-informed negative opinion, which we are beginning to do.
"But, in my more negative moments, I wonder whether we are banging our heads against a brick wall. There is a weight of established negative opinion that does raise the question of whether we want to rebrand ourselves."
He said the field was far from the stereotype Mickey Mouse subject of popular opinion. More media studies graduates get jobs than those in other subjects; the quality of students has been maintained despite the near quadrupling of numbers in the past decade; six out of 38 departments submitted for the 2001 research assessment exercise received top ratings of 5 or 5*, compared with two with the lowest grade 1.
But Professor O'Sullivan said the negative image - typified by its dismissal as "not a proper subject" by the media itself - was sticking.
Parents often raised questions at open days about the image of their children's preferred degree course, he said.
He said that the field was quietly distancing itself from the generic "media studies" label, often preferring on a case-by-case basis to focus on elements within the broad field. "There are a lot of journalism, TV studies, film studies courses now, all under the media umbrella," he said.
"Film studies escapes much of the opprobrium heaped on media studies because there seems to be more of an acceptance that it is a legitimate area for inquiry. But the study of the media is still seen as slightly questionable: we all watch TV and read papers, so what's the difference?"
But he said that there was no obvious alternative. While communication studies, seen as a subject within the field, is often "indistinguishable" from media studies, he said it was technically a specific field that includes languages and linguistics. "Mass communications studies had more of a psychologically respectable label," he said.
Christine Geraghty, chair of MeCCSA, did not agree with Professor O'Sullivan. She said: "Some students and parents can be nervous about it, and it covers a lot of different disciplines. But what would you call it? No one term is entirely satisfactory."
The 'joke' field with serious prospects
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Taking the Mickey out of media studies