In defence of media studies…it is the most relevant of contemporary degrees

As many university media departments waited, telephone receivers in hand and cursors hovering over spreadsheets for the annual clearing melee, many of us rolled our eyes at the latest – and unfortunately timed – outburst from the BBC’s John Humphrys. After in effect, suggesting that women should stay at home and look after their children, he took aim firstly at three-year university degrees, where students spent their first year “getting drunk”. Then he moved onto media studies, questioning why you would need to spend three years learning about something when most people he claims, would agree you only needed “about five minutes”.  If many of us were not focussed on recruitment, the outrage might well have been greater.

And outrage there should be. Firstly, the dismissal of young people as drunkards is bad enough. Sure, when fresher’s week starts, many student bars will be doing a roaring trade, but student cohorts, as anyone who has ever been part of one or taught one will know, are not homogenous. In 2018 for example, while still noting that “it is concerning that university life is still strongly associated with excessive alcohol consumption” (thanks John), the National Union of Students also report survey data suggesting that 21% of students do not drink.  Indeed, the day after Humphrys’ comments, one British university closed down one of its bars because students increasingly prefer coffee. Moreover, don’t forget that while first year students might enjoy a drink or two, they have some other things to deal with, like managing their money, establishing new friends, living and studying more independently and navigating their way around a new town or city. All of that is even before you throw in the reading, essays and assessments. Give them a break. Humphreys has also failed to acknowledge any perspective other than his own. Many students don’t drink for religious or cultural reasons and his comments again reinforce perspectives that education is the elite prerogative of white, high-achieving middle-class youth, when in fact our universities are increasingly diverse.

We might put part of the attack down to the general misinformation being spread by mainstream media about higher education, and this has been mentioned before here on JournalismKX. But why the specific targeting of media studies as something unworthy, and suggestion that somehow it is not a “proper” degree? One regular criticism is that it is irrelevant, yet as one teacher puts it, such a claim is “bizarre” when “so much of our lives is taken up with media”. The portfolio of modules available to students who join our department in Swansea is typical of many other departments across the country. We teach media history, film studies, social media analysis, media law, journalism practice, video production, radio production, journalism studies, animation, gender studies, media entrepreneurship, drama and documentary, web design, online journalism practice and the role of public relations in all realms, including sport. We have experts on digital technology, social media, virtual reality, web technologies, public relations, protest and activism. Irrelevant? What could be more relevant?

Furthermore, when universities and the people working in them are increasingly measured by the value of their research, media departments – within a wide range of humanities options – can lay claim to maximum relevance. I have been extremely fortunate to witness this first hand when given the opportunity to work on some important projects. With scholars including Stephen Cushion (Cardiff University) and  Allaina Kilby (a colleague in Swansea) for example, we looked at general election coverage by the main broadcasters in 2015 and 2017. Our findings were read, commented upon, and acted upon by regulators, editors and journalists. University research identifying ways to enhance the wider democratic process which were then adopted by the broadcasting sector – can anything be more relevant than that? And yet, few of the popular discourses about media studies include anything about impact, but are instead somehow preoccupied with the idea of students sitting around watching Love Island and then writing essays about it.  But when over 6 million people (around 10% of the population of the UK) are watching it, why shouldn’t we take a critical interest? Why is that not relevant? Of course, the answer is that it’s all relevant, and useful, and interesting, and worthy of study.

And yet, as Philip Schlesinger says, “media studies is an easy hit. Critics just need to find an absurd course and satirise it”. In their excellent article examining the construction of media studies in the UK press, Jenny Kidd and Lucy Bennett concluded a “bleak” wider picture, citing one journalist who described ‘the sun bouncing off the tear-stained cheeks of people who thought Media Studies was a good choice of course’.  What is especially odd about such a miserable critique is that, in the words of Schlesinger, “a lot of people who read media studies and get important media jobs then disavow their degrees. They forget they did MS.” Talk about biting the hand that once fed you.

So, while we know that we get a kicking, we should ask why. At a time when political choice seems so polarised, those who believe that the media is complicit in advancing a single world view might theorise that the last thing that mainstream media want is a population skilled in critical thinking, analytical techniques and media literacy. Because then perhaps, more people could read beyond the skilfully manipulative language and images, the patterns and recurring trends leading us down a gradual path of acceptance, and the way that advertisers can draw us in and open our wallets.  Instead perhaps, in the words of Russell Brand, “these organisations want us dumb and full of junk, in our bellies and our brains”.

Conspiracy theory maybe, but it’s one that might be considered as we in the media studies sector are increasingly forced to defend our position against lazy but listened to arguments from people like John Humphrys. We have something to be proud of and worthy of defence; as Kerry Moore asserts, Media Studies is been an essential “critical and disruptive social force” whose purpose is to “try to make sense of the manifold ways in which media plays a fundamental role in our political, economic and cultural lives”.  And what could be more relevant than that?