Three-D Issue 26: In defence of Media Studies

Lucy_profilejenkiddLucy Bennett & Jenny Kidd
Cardiff University

In 2015 we were approached by the Media, Communications and Cultural Studies Association (MeCCSA) in the UK to carry out a small research project for the Higher Education Academy (HEA). The project, ‘Teaching and Learning Issues in the Discipline’, was a transdisciplinary investigation into challenges facing Higher Education that would help determine the future shape of the HEA, and provide a steer for its relationship with learned bodies and subject associations. MeCCSA was one of 27 such organisations in the HEA study.

There were some unsurprising conclusions to our research. Our small study of teaching staff revealed they were concerned about the pace of change in the media landscape, the balance between practice and theory within courses, and the impact of copyright laws on resources available for study. These were felt to be particularly acute challenges within the fields of media, culture and communications. But what was surprising to us was how participants seemed universally to have bought into the idea that these disciplines were battling against a dominant discursive framework within the press that was poisonous in its rhetoric and based on a dominant conservative ideology that unabashedly valued certain kinds of knowledge over others. This problematic emerged as the biggest stated challenge facing our respondents in every focus group, allied with concerns about the wider political context and the pressures it placed upon those working in HE more broadly. It was a concern which respondents thought was particular to the field of media, communications and cultural studies, and if not new, then certainly getting worse in what was considered a hostile climate for these subjects.

But is there a persistent undermining of the discipline as our participants felt? And if there is, did it worsen during the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition Government of 2010-2015 and the policies of Michael Gove as Education Secretary? Or could the narrative about Media Studies as a soft ‘Mickey Mouse’ subject have become a myth perpetuated by media scholars themselves? Might there be an alternative or counter-narrative to be found in press coverage?

We carried out a content analysis of news reporting between 2010 and 2015 (which has been written up in depth for publication) to see whether this perception was justifiable. We looked at all 248 news articles from across the UK press that referred to ‘media studies’ and ‘education’. Some key findings emerged.

Firstly, more than 60 per cent of articles featured a viewpoint that engaged in a delegitimisation of the subject. Allied to the typical framing of Media Studies as ‘soft’ ‘Mickey Mouse’ and ‘easy’ were a host of other terms including ‘useless’, ‘pointless’, ‘worthless’, ‘low quality’, ‘silly’, ‘non-subject’, and even (although only once each in the sample) ‘fluffy’, ‘dubious’, ‘flaky’, ‘self-indulgent’, ‘irrelevant’, ‘lesser’, ‘sub-standard’, ‘for dummies’ and ‘dishonourable’. Even where there was a small undercurrent that tried to debunk and rebut the positioning of Media Studies as a ‘Mickey Mouse’ subject, the restricted discursive repertoire at authors’ disposal made a counter-narrative nigh on impossible.

Secondly, there was a predominance of debate about Media Studies within the HE context rather than at GCSE or GCE level. This debate centered on employability prospects for media graduates (inaccurately presented as next to nothing, revealing the distortions in the coverage), and discussion about the Russell Group in particular and how it was seen to be discouraging Media Studies in favour of more ‘challenging’ traditional subjects (in for example, Informed Choices). The data showed that the repeat offenders for these discourses were The Daily Telegraph, The Daily Mail and The Times. The Guardian and The Independent were more likely to feature a positive slant on the subject, but that counter-narrative was all but non-existent.

Thirdly, we looked at the sources used in reporting about Media Studies and this was perhaps the most striking of results. The most dominant voices in the debate about Media Studies’ value were politicians. Not only this, it was clear in the analysis that Conservative viewpoints overwhelmingly dominated the other political parties, appearing 85% of the time. This is perhaps somewhat unsurprising since the ruling Government during our sample was either the Conservative, or the Conservative/Lib Dem coalition. However, the large gap between the representation of views from Conservative and Labour is quite striking. No newspaper in our sample featured a Labour politician’s perspective on education more than once in all their coverage, with the political party appearing just four times across our sample period.

Why should this matter? Firstly, when choosing subjects of study newspapers remain an important source of information for students and parents. If they are being presented with only a partial – and predominantly negative – appraisal of the subject then they are clearly not in possession of all the facts. This should be a major concern to those interested in the recruitment of diverse high quality students onto programmes. Secondly, if Media Studies as an academic discipline is delegitimised then it becomes too easy to dismiss its critiques; critiques that 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.

What becomes clear from the analysis is that this discipline, and those who speak out on its behalf, have a mountain to climb in order to re-configure the debate within which Media Studies continues to be framed. We leave you with the following from the sample:

‘that a student reading media studies is of no earthly use to the society he wants to fund him [sic], I need hardly argue to the readers of this column’ (Jacobson, The Independent, 2010).

‘Science graduates spend their careers asking ‘Why does it work?’, engineering graduates ponder ‘How does it work?’, while their friends from Media Studies ask: ‘Do you want fries with that?’ (Johnston, The Independent, 2013).

‘the only glittering is the sun bouncing off the tear-stained cheeks of people who thought Media Studies was a good choice of course’ (Cumming, The Daily Telegraph 2011).

Posted by Einar Thorsen