By Louise Byrne, U.K. based journalism teacher & media researcher. (2018)

You are right that students on practical media degree courses are often encouraged to produce content that is geared towards getting them a job in the mainstream of their particular industry. This can be problematic, especially if university is supposed to encourage students to be questioning and push the boundaries. What is interesting is that whilst students’ practical classes encouraged them to conform (to a certain extent) in what they produce, in their more academic theoretical courses they are often encouraged to question all aspects of the mainstream media (from ownership through content to audience effects). I know somewhere you have said something along the lines of much media criticism amounts to endorsing today’s mainstream content, but there is also a highly critical – sometimes Marxist strain - in academic Media Studies, particularly in the political economy of the media, and you saw that critical approach in the course that you mentioned towards the end of your piece. In fact that is part of the reason that media studies academics never get into the mainstream media, because traditionally, dating back to the 1970s, they have had a reputation for being antagonistic towards it. The other larger reason is that media studies has never been seen as a 'proper' subject with academic credentials.

What needs to be understood is that there are different types of degree courses, but all of them have an analytical critical element. There is no media degree – even the most practical ones - at university level in the UK in which students do not have to write essays about the industry, the content it produces and the effect on audiences. This is because it would not be passed as a degree by the QAA (Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education). Some have more or less academic elements, but they all have to have them.

If a degree is called Media Studies, it may not have any practical elements at all; it could be a pure social science degree which studies the media (production, text and audience). These courses are at great pains to teach the importance of analysing mass media because it is so incredibly powerful and a tool in the hands of the elites. It is a social science subject similar to sociology, and it continues to struggle with its reputation as a new subject, much like sociology before it. And then there are courses, either full degrees in their own right, or part of the above Media Studies degree (as a ‘pathway’), that are more practical and are perhaps called Media Production. But these students will all still have to produce critical essays if the courses are to qualify as degrees.

But what you have highlighted, and I hadn’t really thought about, is that there is often a fundamental contradiction between the practical elements of a degree in which mainstream employability is often the focus, and the theoretical elements of the degree which encourage a more critical stance on the way the mainstream media works. The students are not always encouraged to practise what we preach – or teach them.

In thinking about the practical elements, some would argue that you have to teach the basics before a student can go off in their own creative direction. But whilst this is true, you are right on reflection: when, for example, I am teaching feature writing, a student may come to me and say they want to do something experimental, and I might say to them, learn the basics first (and that can take some time), then you can go off and do it the way you want to do it, knowing full well that unless they do it well, the experimental that is, nobody is going to look at it except themselves. This may be a fault in my thinking and also the pre-set and strictly controlled assessment standards and criteria set by universities; why should I be concerned that the mainstream would reject their work, if they are exploring expressive boundaries? Isn’t that what university is about? Aware that students are often bound by normative approaches to mainstream journalism, I did recently consider setting up a literary journalism website for UK students where they would be able to experiment and do absolutely whatever they wanted with their writing. It could be argued we badly need new forms in journalism.

However, it is also true that these days students don’t need to wait for lecturers to give them permission to experiment. All the digital technology is there, much of it for free, for them to experiment and express to their hearts content, and introduce it to the outside world. Whether they choose to be concerned about the commercialism or digital ‘monetisation’ (an awful word) of their work is entirely up to them, and you would be surprised at how many of them are concerned about money. A student of mine recently wrote an essay about the new 'de-monetisation' by YouTube of content posted on the site which upsets potential advertisers (i.e. they take the advertising away from those sites). The argument goes that the demonetisation of what might be considered controversial or offensive content is bad because it discriminates against free expression and diversity of content etc. But I just couldn’t get the student to understand that not everyone who posted material on YouTube was doing it to make money in the first place.

I think you will find that it is not the universities on their own who are encouraging monoform. Yes, they could be encouraging greater experimentation in students' media practice, the kind of experimentation they yearn for when they critique the mainstream media, but it is the monopolisation of media ownership (even within the new digital ecology which was once hailed as a counterforce to mainstream dominance), and the changes in digital technology which, for example, make editing so much easier, and therefore the temptations greater, that are also driving the downward spiral. It would, however, be interesting to know what you think of slow television!


© Peter Watkins 2018