What <i>is</i> the point of media studies?

This autumn, record numbers of students will embark on media-related courses. But some critics still question their value

Tim Luckhurst
Sunday 27 August 2006 00:00 BST

Cambridge University called them a "soft" option this week. John Humphrys thinks they're pointless. In the more macho parts of journalism, real journos don't study. They roll up their sleeves and report.

Yet thousands of young people sign up to media studies courses. They have helped produce former Channel 4 chief executive Michael Jackson (Westminster University); Sunday Times editor John Witherow (Cardiff School of Journalism); Royal Television Society Young Journalist of the Year 2004 Mark Daly (University of Stirling); and hundreds of others. So what's the problem?

Until the late 1990s, seasoned journalists relished opportunities to rubbish media studies. It was the modern equivalent of 1960s sociology, a fool's paradise jammed full of bearded Marxists with "sweetie mice for brains". When Chris Woodhead, the former chief inspector of schools, condemned it as "vacuous" and "quasi-academic", there were cheers in newsrooms from Brighton to Inverness.

Some still feel that way. John Humphrys, the presenter of Radio 4's Today programme, says: "Even more kids are doing it now and it is sillier than it ever was. Where are they going to find jobs? If you decide after a proper degree in English, history or economics to do a one-year postgraduate course in journalism at a good university, all well and good. But the idea of three years at university doing journalism is barmy."

But the consensus has shifted. Academically speaking, media studies became officially respectable in January this year when Oxford University announced the creation of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. It proclaims the ambition to "break down the barriers of incomprehension and mistrust", which have defined relations between journalism and academia. "Media studies has moved from the old polytechnics to the academic mainstream," says Philip Schlesinger, the director of the Media Research Institute at Stirling University. "It has entered the citadels."

There are hundreds of undergraduate courses containing media or journalism. One professor says: "If you include either word - even if it's chemistry and journalism studies - you get four times as many applicants. The University of Chester does it with nearly 100 courses." Others, including the universities of Middlesex, Roehampton, Sunderland and Winchester, excel at the same ploy.

That breeds confusion about which degrees are taken seriously. The distinction was once simple. Media degrees were dominated by academic theory and journalism degrees were vocational. Employers spurned both in favour of vocational postgraduate diplomas taught by long-established schools such as Cardiff, Sheffield and London City or the excellent National Council for the Training of Journalists courses taught at further education colleges.

"Now the subject area is in transition," says Philip Schlesinger. "Parents and students are more consumerist. Media studies is still good at analysis and research, but now good courses do practice as well. You need both. Don't pay too much attention to newspaper top tens. Listen to word of mouth and check websites. They are often better than printed prospectuses."

Sally Feldman, the dean of the School of Media at Westminster University, warns: "If you want the combination of practice underpinned by good academic teaching you have to look hard. Judge by league tables, and whether courses are approved by industry training bodies. Ask what facilities they have and how many students are using them. Check the university's contacts with industry. You don't want to be taught by tired old hacks that are doing it as a rest cure."

Some employers are less cynical. Britain's largest-selling newspaper, the News of the World, operates a graduate scholarship that has recruited seven students in the past five years. One has a degree in media studies, another a BA in journalism. "Journalism and media courses are not universally useless," says NoW deputy managing editor Paul Nicholas. "There are some really good ones. Look for universities that include the National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ) qualification in their degree. Coming out with an NCTJ means you don't have to spend time and money getting one later. Try to identify a university that has a number of newspapers around it. Good work experience counts - and if there is just one local title the editor is going to get fed up fast."

Sally Feldman agrees that employers want practical skills. "Industry is looking to universities to train people. In the modern media world of short-term contracts, on-the-job training is rare. The real point of an undergraduate degree is that it should prepare you for work."

But employers want thorough academic education as well, says the BBC's director of sport, Roger Mosey. "I've no doubt there are acceptable degrees in media studies, but my personal recommendation is to study a more traditional subject area and either get work experience in the media or do a post-graduate course in journalism or the equivalent. The combination of an utterly robust degree with practical training is probably the best combination to offer an employer."

Tim Gardam, the principal of St Anne's College, Oxford, and former BBC head of news and current affairs, is one of the most senior British journalists to cross the line between media and academe. As chairman of the steering committee setting up the Oxford-Reuters institute, he remains adamant about the importance of academic rigour. "The institute is part of the department of politics and international relations. That gives it a place in a clear academic discipline instead of trying to invent a new one. Media studies have made journalism a profession in which you need a master's degree to progress. That is good. Some of the work done at established postgraduate schools, for example at Cardiff on the role of embedded reporters in Iraq, has been excellent."

Sally Feldman remains resolutely practical. "It is funny that vocational studies such as medicine, law and dentistry are considered respectable but media studies are not. In the creative industries, the biggest employability passport these days is being able to work in teams. Our degrees teach that."

"There are still a lot of professional journalists who sneer at media studies," admits Peter Cole, professor of journalism at Sheffield and media columnist for this newspaper. "Journalists love exposing the truth, but if anyone wants to take a close look at what they do they hate it."

Philip Schlesinger says: "Media studies is an easy hit. Critics just need to find an absurd course and satirise it. The strange thing is that a lot of people who read media studies and get important media jobs then disavow their degrees. They forget they did MS."

Whatever the value of media studies, it isn't a passport to a job. "Above all, I want candidates to offer realistic and solid proof that they really want to be journalists," says Paul Nicholas. Sally Feldman agrees. "What will really get you into the industry is wanting to change the world and uncover truth."


57,500 students sat media, film or TV studies GCSE in 2006. This is 25.9 per cent more than in 2005 and represents 1 per cent of all GCSEs taken this year.

25.9 per cent jump in media studies entries in the past year.

30,964 students sat media, film or TV studies A level in 2006. This represents 3.8 per cent of all A levels taken; 54 per cent of students were girls and 46 per cent boys.

10,002 applicants accepted for mass communication and documentation graduate courses by higher education institutions in 2005.

250 per cent increase in the number of people taking media studies at A level over the past 10 years.

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