Media studies - Analytical skills sort fact from 'unfact'

8th April 2011 at 01:00
Journalist David Aaronovitch

Last week I heard the influential American author Tyler Cowen being interviewed about his book, The Great Stagnation, in which he observes that his grandmother's lifetime (she was born in 1905) had seen more innovation than his (he was hatched in '62).

This makes us roughly contemporaneous. And while I don't want to argue against his thesis that innovation slowed down in recent years, I do want to look at one area of life in which that is obviously, demonstrably and momentously untrue; at the bit that has been almost entirely transformed in my lifetime.

Media. Or, rather, the making, transmission, receiving and impact of distant communication. In my early world, the impressions I received about how things were, were almost completely constructed from the opinions and actions of people I actually knew. There were two TV channels running from 5pm to 11pm, four BBC radio stations, various newspapers of which I read only the one we took, books at home, cinema (with Pathe news) and occasional visits to the theatre. If you missed something - a TV play or series - then it had gone. Research involved going to the library and hoping they had something on the topic you were interested in. I was 10 before I realised that most people weren't Communists.

The passing of this world, and its replacement by one of media ubiquity and plasticity, of a knowledge cornucopia, is the Great Change of our times. It has helped to speed up the process of challenging and undermining most authority, and has replaced the local with the global as a source of information and identity. Rather than a background presence, occasionally stepping forward, media has become constant.

In a Javanese village they are seeing the same pictures of Benghazi as you now see in your sitting room or on your laptop. In India they are reading Wikipedia entries that may have been supplemented by a young teacher in Montreal.

It's a carnival, an endless, mutating possibility of information, fact, unfact, claimed fact, opinion, attitude, film, music, impression and personal connection. And it raises enormous problems of authority, verification and assessment of motive. An understanding of media is as essential a basic tool of survival in the modern word as IT or DT. You may choose just to absorb it, but unless you can evaluate it, you lack necessary skills.

How odd, then, that we hardly study this phenomenon at all, and that when we do we are so often derided. Media studies is routinely referred to as an "easy option" for the non-academic to obtain a meaningless qualification at school; at degree level it is often exhibit A in a rhetorical trial of "Mickey Mouse" courses. My more snobbish fellow journalists (unaware that, not so long ago, they themselves would have served an apprenticeship on a local paper) cannot see beyond the virtues of an Oxford BA in PPE (philosophy, politics and economics).

Of course, some early media studies courses at college were afflicted by extreme forms of post-modernism, that had Baudrillardian professors questioning whether war was real and up was up. But several institutions long ago established courses that have real heftiness today. And, in any case, what exactly would be the argument from principle against an Oxford PEMS course, alongside PPE? I would love to know.

Why should a media studies A-level be seen as any less valid, less weighty than one in economics, politics or philosophy? Or even geography? If the problem is an underdeveloped curriculum, then for God's sake let's develop it. And let's ask, can a young person understand the world without some significant capacity to evaluate critically what we call media and its operation? If the answer is "no", then before we ever get as far as devising academic and semi-vocational post-16 courses, we should ask why media studies is not a core subject, and demand that it should be.

Demand, because of course it should be. It should be there in the English Baccalaureate alongside history and modern languages, given the status its importance suggests, and with the necessary time and attention devoted to it. Its status should be as high as that of the canonical subjects, with revered and famous professors in media studies, media studies prizes and regular news of media studies breakthroughs.

My guess is that if the standing of media studies were to be as high as its importance, it would also become a favoured subject among students of all abilities and talents. It is, after all, central to their everyday world.

David Aaronovitch is a columnist for 'The Times' and author of 'Voodoo Histories: the role of the conspiracy theory in shaping modern history'.

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