Why Study Media?

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Every now and then, when the Daily Mail has nothing better to think about, or Jeremy Paxman is feeling testy and superior, Media Studies gets what is ironically called “a bad press”.

Even after a general election in which the media played a pivotal role (television debates, the 24-hour news beast feeding on the corpse of Gordon Brown after his accidental on-mic comment, the on-screen worm during the debates etc.), even after all that, Media Studies gets described as a “Mickey Mouse subject”.

It would be hilarious if it wasn’t so serious. We live in a mediated world, a reality constructed around us and constantly filtered through the media. Although you might experience some of reality directly (in an unmediated way), your response to that reality is inevitably informed by your exposure to the modern media. When you see yourself in the mirror, do you not judge yourself by the standards of beauty and style laid down by the fashion and beauty industries? When you get ready to vote in a general election, are you making your own decision based on your own experience, or are your opinions and experience infected by the media and what they decide is important? Did you think about climate change and the environment much during the election campaign, or did you think about the economy? Did you worry about the experience of poverty in this country (and around the world) or did you think about the banks, and what they might think/say/do depending on who got into office?

When we innocently take pictures of our kids playing in the park, are we worried that people around us might suspect we’re up to no good? In our relationships with each other, do we take people at face value, or do we make judgements based on the way we think they should be? When we desire consumer goods, why is that exactly? Why do we want things? How does that happen?

The best metaphor for media studies is the idea of “introducing fish to water.” To become aware of the mediated world is to have the veil lifted from our eyes, to see the world in sharp focus.

We get soundbite politics – because of the media.
We get personality politics – because of the media.
We learn to act the way we do – because of the media.
We learn to talk the way we do – because of the media.
We get turned on, we get excited, we get angry, we laugh and we cry – because of the media.
We became convinced that Gordon Brown wasn’t up to the job – because of the media.
We panic about vaccines, medicines, food, drink, sunshine – because of the media.

So how are we going to choose our options? Are we going to let the Daily Mail make decision for us? Or Jeremy Paxman? Next time Paxman sneers about Media Studies, think on this. When presenting University Challenge, he often scoffs at the students who don’t know the answers to “obvious” questions about the Arts and Literature. But when it comes to the “obvious” science questions, he reads the answers as if they’re written in some strange dead language that nobody speaks. Paxman, like many who work at the BBC, was educated at public schools (Malvern College, Charterhouse) and at Cambridge University – where he studied English.

This might seem trivial: so what if most of the people who work in the media have arts and humanities degrees from Oxford or Cambridge and don’t understand science, maths, statistics? Well, this actually costs lives: when that charlatan doctor in the pay of law firms who were mounting a class action lawsuit against vaccine manufacturers said that the MMR vaccine was linked to autism, the media didn’t bother to check their facts or understand the issue, they just reported the story in as sensational a way as possible. For years afterwards, as parents agonised about whether to vaccinate their kids and as a result exposed them to the risk of deadly diseases, the media reported Wakefield’s opinions as if they were respectable, balanced, and scientific. Even now, the BBC’s faulty idea of “balance” in reporting means that they don’t properly report just how vile and corrupt Wakefield’s work was.

To understand how such things happen, why they happen, and why they keep happening is, for me, a fit subject of study. Our society (Parliament, the Civil Service, the BBC etc.) is in the hands of public school (mostly) boys and Oxbridge graduates. And it always has been. Why is that, exactly?

None of this is to mention the skills you develop in Media Studies – skills in writing, editing, analysis, research, design, publishing, video and audio editing/mixing, project management, people skills etc. – which are incredibly useful and incredibly transferrable. One of the things you often hear from the media who give Media Studies a bad press is that, “Anyway, there are no jobs, there are too many people coming through and they won’t get jobs in the media.”

Well. Either it’s a Mickey Mouse subject, or it’s “too hard”, a demanding and impossible industry to get into. Which is it? It’s like saying you shouldn’t study Physics because you won’t get a job at CERN; or that you shouldn’t study law because you won’t get to be a “top barrister”. If you study English and you don’t do so at Oxford or Cambridge, what are your chances of getting a “top job”?

Personally, I like to teach Media because I want to lift the lid on the workings of life and expose them. I want to introduce fish to water. Regardless of that, the transferrable skills you learn in Media (or Film) Studies will equip you for working life, whatever you end up doing. And most of you will end up doing several jobs. I know I did.

So. Next time someone scoffs at Media Studies, ask them this: when did you last go a day without being exposed to the media, in print and on screen? When did you last have an opinion of your own making?

Next time someone calls it a Mickey Mouse subject, ask them this: who owns the Mouse? What other companies do they own? What was the turnover of this company last year? Which member of the board of this company is also a member of the board of another huge company? How does one business relate to the other? How influential are they? Who are their competitors? How does this competition benefit or harm consumers? What ideology does the company who owns the mouse try to impose upon the world? Why do they do this?

2 thoughts on “Why Study Media?

  1. Excellent post. As we enter a world of heavily mediated forms of consciousness, media literacy and studies are especially important to everyone except a few: people who blindly accept the culture industry and are ignorant or afraid to question it, those who view education as mere “job training,” and people in traditional, professional roles which media studies encompasses, such as communications or public relations/advertising/marketing. Life is mediation – according to Baudrillard, increasingly meaningless mediation. If we are to have any understanding of that, it is time for people to recognize the value of media studies.

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