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Friday, April 08, 2011

Gotcha - Kelvin McKenzie calls out the Media Studies machine

The British Independent is running a fascinating perspective from old Red Top warrior Kelvin McKenzie on the explosion of media studies courses and journalism schools.

The article, which is an amended version of a speech he provocatively made at a London University recently, suggests that the media studies industry is little more than a racket, aimed at providing funds to universities and keeping hasbeen hacks in employment, rather than training the next generation of journalists.

On some of his points, he's clearly correct. Journalism isn't a profession requiring years of study. It's best learnt on the job, in a newsroom, under the guidance of older, wiser journalists. And with the print journalism industry currently in crisis and laying off workers left, right and centre, there are no job opportunities for the veritable hordes of graduates emerging from colleges every year.

McKenzie is probably right to advise would-be journalists to avoid such courses and seek employment directly from local newspapers and train up that way. However, in such a job shortage, there are few opportunities for starting journalists even there.

They are, in effect, competing with the many recently unemployed journalists who have experience. There has been a growing trend in the media as in other industries to utilise graduates as work experience fodder, paying them nothing as interns in order to avoid hiring staff. So a would-be young reporter is really up against it, seeking work where there is no work, against more experienced journalists and also against those who are prepared to work for no pay.

Many will struggle even to find unpaid placements. Others will struggle along for years as freelance workers, living on pittances. Most will simply give up and migrate into other industries, or else retrain in something else. For this latter cohort, they will effectively have wasted money and time on three years of study that was of little or no use to them.

The explosion of media studies courses has been identified in some quarters as an example of the dumbing down of education at both secondary and tertiary levels. It seems, on surface analysis, like an easy ride for kids to 'study' TV shows and newspaper articles for three years, play with sound editing software and video cameras a bit, then emerge with a degree.

McKenzie's point - that a shrinking industry does not require the 25,400 media studies graduates emerging from British universities each year - is only one aspect of the debate, however. Not all of those graduates wish to work in the media, any more than all history graduates wish to be professional historians or all literature graduates wish to be professional poets.

There is a sense in which a liberal arts degree functions to equip a student with critical apparatus that can be used generally in their lives. Educating young people about the intricacies of an ever more proliferating, ever more agendized media is not the most useless thing a university can do.

However, it does seem odd that we are now in an age where people are becoming professionally trained consumers of media even as the media itself is debasing (by way of job losses, lower reporting standards and increased dependence upon PR materials.)

There is an argument in favour of applying the same academic rigour of analysis to the sort of media people consume today as was traditionally reserved for the analysis of classical literature. Why should The Wire or the lyrics of The Beatles not warrant such attention? But the question arises as to where the line is crossed into risibility. What value, for example, might a doctoral study of Britney Spears' music possess? Ironic kitsch value only, I'd suggest, which itself serves to debase the concept of academic rigour.

On the one hand, if people want to go to university to study media, then that is in itself a legitimate consumer decision and universities are merely responding to the education market. Increasingly, they are encouraged to take this service provider perspective by governments.

But on the other hand, what is achieved for society by churning out tens of thousands of people with degrees in how to read newspapers closely? Is this not a form of dumbing down from the days when they learnt to apply that level of criticism to Ulysses or the Peloponnesian War? It clearly doesn't serve the media industry, as McKenzie acutely and somewhat cruelly points out. The only industry well served by this trend is the media studies industry itself.

In the meantime, McKenzie must be commended for making the point that such graduates ought not to expect an entrance into the industry with their qualification. Perhaps the universities might be more up front and honest with their 'customers' on this point. Then tens of thousands of students might not enter such degrees harbouring ill-fated ambitions to form part of the industry they spend three years studying.

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