Friday, 31 January 2014

Does Media Studies exist?

Sounds like a philosophical question, doesn't it? And oddly enough it came up because of a writer who styles himself as a philosopher, but is a good illustration of why we shouldn't be too impressed with people just because other people define them as 'clever'.

On Wednesday night, Newsnight ran a lengthy piece which was effectively an advert for the latest book by Alain De Botton, who has written books on everything from sex to religion to travel. He has now turned his attention to writing about news. This week, he launched his own daily online newspaper, The Philosopher's Mail, which mimics the style of The Mail Online to supposedly make profound statements about life, offering a different slant on what gets covered as news. Have a look for yourself, but I think it is total tripe. Far from asking difficult questions about the world (which is what I thought philosophers did) it seems to veer between trying to be funny (which it isn't) and making really trite observations. If it was set up with the aim of showing people how ridiculous 'news' as a genre is, with its obsessions with celebrity and trivial stories, it doesn't do much of a job. And in any case it's been done before- very well, by the likes of Charlie Brooker:

(WARNING: There's swearing in these videos, so don't put them on loud in class!):

and in the USA by The Onion:

and probably best of all by The Day Today (which, if you've never seen it, you should watch all twelve episodes):

But enough of these enjoyable parodies of news- what's this got to do with the title of my post? Well one thing about parody is that it often draws attention to the things that we take for granted, and all three of these examples do that with some biting satire on the way that news operates. Media Studies attempts, amongst other things, to draw attention to the form of texts and the ways in which they work and how that creates meaning. Its been around (Media Studies) for quite a long time now, and I suspect you get as fed up as I do with people saying its a soft option or a 'Mickey mouse' subject, particularly when they say it in the media. On results day each year, there is almost routine reference on news programmes to media studies as if it is the subject nobody should be doing. Each year close to 30,000 students complete the A level and 60,000 the GCSE. Imagine my surprise then, when in his (awful) video, De Botton says that no-one teaches about news in schools and, in the discussion afterwards, Alistair Campbell asserts that 'there is now a need for an education about the modern media'. It's true that media education is not compulsory and that Michael Gove seems to be doing his utmost to stop people studying it, but it is bizarre that Newsnight should give such coverage to a book which talks as if no-one has ever thought about studying the news and that no-one on the programme showed any awareness that it has been taught in schools and universities for many years!

I'm not the only one to spot this- there was some discussion on a Higher Education mailing list, on twitter and on the Cardiff University School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies blog, written by Kerry Moore too. We are all now wondering whether we dreamt it all and that Media Studies doesn't exist.

Anyway, enough of my ranting. Judge for yourself. Here is the video De Botton made for Newsnight, followed by the studio discussion.

Sunday, 26 January 2014

Twitter Panic!

In the last few days, Twitter has been in the news again.

Footbal pundit Stan Collymore of Talksport called for twitter to be more proactive in stopping abuse after he was trolled with a lot of particularly hateful and racist messages after he said he thought Luis Suarez had dived in Liverpool's game against Aston Villa. Collymore has been the victim of such abuse before, including when he revealed that he had suffered from depression. The Sun newspaper decided to capitalise on Collymore's campaign during the week by dredging up the story of the stormy relationship he had with Ulrika Johnson back in the 1990s. Where the truth lies in terms of what happened in their relationship and whether he did the things she accused him of, no-one really knows, but it succeeded in setting off another chain of angry tweets and then Collymore apparently deleting his account.

He re-activated his account the next day, and as you can see, he has plenty of followers, so it is no surprise that there are some unpleasant people amongst them.
The second Twitter-related story of the week, in a similar vein, was the court cases of two people who had launched a campaign of abuse against feminist campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez. The two, both from the North-East, had independently sent tirades of abuse and threats to Caroline and to Labour MP, Stella Creasey and others because they were arguing for a female figure to appear on banknotes. Both got prison sentences for their behaviour, though it is pretty obvious in both cases that they are rather sad figures who would have been incapable of carrying out their threats.

In the third story, Sky Sports invited Olympic gymnast Beth Tweddle to come and do a live Q&A session via twitter. Unfortunately, once again many people took it as an opportunity to behave abusively, posting a series of nasty comments about her appearance and making obscene jokes at her expense.  Laura Bates from the Everyday Sexism project wrote an excellent blog about it and its wider implications.

In each case, Twitter was the vehicle through which abusive behaviour was carried and it is easy, as in Collymore's case, to get angry with that vehicle for letting it happen. The problem is that once something is created which allows instant responses, with no kind of gatekeeper to monitor those responses before they are published, it is very difficult to stop the abuse. I saw Piers Morgan tweet this:
Of course, he is right on one level, it shouldn't be any different, but on another level it is impossible to stop it in the way that you can stop it on TV and radio, where there are editors and technicians on the spot to pull the plug (or not let you on in the first place!). The only things that can be done in a medium like Twitter are retrospective- which means when people report abuse, the police then finding the perpetrator and bringing them to justice, which takes a long time. And which would be simply impossible to do to every abusive tweeter. All that can be done is make an example of some people and hope that this dissuades others.

But it doesn't look like it will. If you follow any controversial hashtag or celebrity, you'll find an awful lot of abuse. It seems that twitter gives some people who don't normally have much power in their lives the opportunity to feel powerful, particularly when speaking to someone famous, which broadcast media could rarely do. I think it will get a whole lot worse.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Representation of youth revisited...

I have blogged previously about the representation of young people in the media and the ways in which young people construct a sense of collective identity.

Last time I posted the link to Dave Harrison's excellent resource about representations of youth.

It is important to always be on the lookout for new examples of media texts to consider and this topic is no exception. Two documentaries with different approaches could prove useful. One is 'Teenage', due out next month, which takes an historical look at the whole concept of the teenager, including archive clips from before the Second World War. The synopsis sounds interesting:

"Narrated by actors Jena Malone, Ben Whishaw, Julia Hummer and Jessie Usher, director Matt Wolf’s compelling collage is crafted from archival material, Super-8 recreations and diaries of actual mid-century teenagers, all set to a post-punk contemporary soundtrack. The result is an unconventional pop historical film about the birth of the iconic, eternally cool figure of the teenager". 

The trailer is on Empire's site and you can view it here

By contrast, British director Beeban Kidron's film 'In Real Life' looks at young people now. Shown on Sky late last year, the film has also had a limited cinema release and is now out on DVD. It has a dedicated website and has had quite a bit of press coverage here, given its subject matter, which is young people's use of the internet. Described by The Times as "A shock-doc on the effect of incessant internet use on the malleable, still-growing teenage mind", the film pretty clearly wades into territory that tends to pathologise young people as victims of the media, so is well worth analysis. Here's the trailer:

This 'concerned' view of young people contrasts strongly with a fictional view in the upcoming 'Gone Too Far', set in Peckham, South London. Originally a stageplay by Bola Agbaje, the film, directed by Destiny Ekaragha, is a comedy drama about a boy who is embarrassed by his older brother arriving from Nigeria. It is much more than that, however, since it not only features an almost exclusively black British cast, but just for a change, avoids the tendency to turn young black British boys into criminals. 

The film builds upon Destiny's earlier short films set in South London, notably 'Tight Jeans', which won best short film at the 2008 London Film Festival:

As I have suggested previously, there is no single 'media representation' of youth; there may be dominant representations, such as the very negative coverage of boys in UK news stories which content analysis has shown, but across films, tv, fiction and documentary there are significant differences and nuances which need to be teased out- to say nothing of the ways in which young people represent themselves in social media, which perhaps has a far greater degree of complexity than 'In Real Life' suggests.

In any essay you write on the topic, this complexity should be reflected, both in your arguments and in your examples. Maybe start with the films here......

Saturday, 11 January 2014

Resources for 2014

The MediaMag Conference 2013 less than 90 seconds!

Video extracts from all the presentations will be available for subscribers in February .

Next, a bit of a ragbag of stuff this week, from things people have sent me which I've forgotten to write about, to opportunities for readers!

1. A good talk by Matt Locke about new ways in which audiences consume the media:

2. A documentary about The Pirate Bay:

3. UK tribes all about how marketing breaks down the youth audience

4. Dave Harrison's excellent blog collection!

5. Year of the Selfie? article about photographing young people:

7. And opportunities...the Media Magazine production competition 2014: entry form here Applications close 28 March

8. And don't forget you can apply for the BFI Film Academy national residential at the NFTS here; applications close 3 Feb.

Monday, 6 January 2014

The Obsessions of our mid-market tabloids

I don't buy The Daily Mail or The Daily Express. I don't like them. They don't represent my opinion on anything, really and just annoy me. So I try to steer clear of them to keep my blood pressure down. They are what is known as the 'midmarkets', positioned half way between the 'qualities'- Independent, Guardian, Telegraph, Times- and the 'red tops'- The Mirror, The Sun, The Star and The Sport.   I do notice them when I go to the shops and have been struck recently by the number of times they seemed to have devoted their front pages to stories about immigration- all part of the obsession with what would happen once Rumanians and Bulgarians were allowed to come to work in the UK.

So to see just how much of an obsession it was, I checked out this site: which I have mentioned in previous posts as being quite useful as an archive. To some extent I was right, as these front pages illustrate:

In spite of the limited amount of truth in most of the headlines, both papers are going for easy wins, tapping into reader prejudices about immigration. When I looked across the last five weeks, I found that immigration was marginally ahead of health coverage in terms of front page stories, with particular events like the Nigella Lawson servants' trial, the Glasgow helicopter crash and the death of Nelson Mandela providing a few exceptions. But for The Daily Express, one topic outstripped all others for its front pages, with no less than 16 of the last 30 front pages about it, including on the day after Mandela died- only the Express did not make him the headline. Yes, for The Daily Express, the front page is more often than not, all about the weather.

You would imagine from this that maybe The Daily Express is campaigning about Global Warming to raise questions about what is causing freak weather- but you'd be wrong. It seems that it is just their strategy to avoid putting the big political stories on its front page. Even The Sun devoted its front page on December 6th to Nelson Mandela, but The Express just pretended nothing had happened and stuck with floods and an advert for its TV guide the next day.

But this is nothing new. Blogger Scott Bryan reports that between September 2011 and August 2012, the front page was about the weather on 111 occasions. And most of the time, they were wrong. George Monbiot, of The Guardian, offers an explanation for some of this, explaining that The Express seemed to subscribe to a dodgy weather forecasting outfit.

The excellent newsframes blog gives a systematic breakdown by colour of The Express front page topics- health, weather and immigration have been in their top five for some time!

Best of all, is the fabulous 'Express Bingo' which I was alerted to by my friend Penny on twitter: This site shows you how they 'pick n'mix' their front pages according to just twelve themes. It does make you wonder, what is the point of The Daily Express? If you really want to help out the owner, Richard Desmond, you could buy one of his other publications or subscribe to some of his TV channels. Though they don't cover the weather very much.

Anyway, just for the record, if I want to know the weather I either look at the BBC site, which is generally quite accurate, or put my head out of the door to see what it is like. If I want to know about health, I ask my doctor. And if I want a view on immigration, I usually choose to believe exactly the opposite of the Mail and Express, as that is likely to be a much more accurate position.