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What we mean by Journalism and Media Studies

Guy Berger's picture

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Every lecturer at Rhodes’ School of Journalism and Media Studies (JMS) subscribes to the vision statement. But everyone also has his or her individual interpretation.
No matter – the diversity is something to value. Yet it can cause difficulties when a discussion takes place with different folk meaning different things – but using the same words.
That’s how it was at an imbizo (“pot”) – a confab – of the JMS teaching staff held in July. The terms at stake were “journalism”, “journalism studies” and “media studies”:

* “Journalism” for some people meant “news”; for others it designated a wider scope of mass communication activity;
* “Media studies” was seen as the study of media at the very broadest level by some, thereby subsuming a narrower “journalism studies”, and yet falling within an even broader “cultural studies” as the study of culture and identity. Other colleagues seemed to view “media studies” and “journalism studies” as being potentially alternative foci.
* Teaching “journalism” was seen as the terrain of teaching the production of meanings for most participants, but an argument was also put forward that “media studies” could also entail production (although not of news, for instance, but of drama).

Here’s my take:

* Let’s distinguish *frameworks for* study, from *objects of* study. So, let’s keep “Cultural Studies” in the sense of a framework or conceptual approach, just as there can be a “Political Economy” perspective. Both frameworks could be used to analyse, for instance, the newsroom culture at Grocott’s Mail, or the consumption of television in middle-class homes – each generating different insights. Frameworks, in short, are not limited to singular objects of study.
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* Let’s take a broad view of “journalism” – it’s a kind of communication that certainly includes, but is not limited to, news. In the Iindaba Ziyafika project, we discovered that haiku could be used to tell journalistic stories. Most haiku, of course, is not journalistic. Just as not all factual writing is news. Could radio drama be journalism? You bet. But it then has to be a rendition that makes verifiable claims about reality, is based on reportage, and meets the public interest. Fictional drama wouldn’t be journalism. Conversely, some tabloid news barely counts as journalism. In other words, let’s conflate function and format. Journalism has some boundaries, but it can be done across many genres and formats.
* “Journalism studies” as the study of journalism as an “object” can encompass the gamut of production-text-audience-context – as these moments may or may not bear upon this distinctive communication practice. With the advent of blogging, etc., an increasing amount of journalism is now taking place outside the media institutions as such (not that all blogging is journalistic). So in this sense, journalism studies could range wider than media studies (if the latter is taken to mean the traditional institutions of the mass media).
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* “Media studies”, like journalism studies, is the study of the media (which can be conceived more or less broadly or narrowly, as above). For instance, it can encompass the study of journalism, but also of advertising or fictional entertainment products, and also the moments of production-text-audience-context. However, changing times suggest that media should increasingly be understood to have a scope that is wider than only being the legacy “mass media institutions”. We could take “media studies” therefore as including, for instance, mediated interpersonal communication such as via social media. Our students need to know the media sociology of Facebook and Twitter, the cultural studies insights into Mxit, the political economy of Wikipedia, etc. Some communication in and via these sites is journalistic, much is not – but it is all great subject matter for “media studies”.
* Neither “media studies” nor “journalism studies” necessitates teaching or learning the competence of how to practically produce journalistic or wider media products. As at Wits University, you can have a whole three-year major in “media studies” without recourse to any production exercise. The courses amount to valuable knowledge constituting media literacy (widely defined). If practical production activities are involved in the teaching of “media studies” or “journalism studies”, then their rationale is mainly to heighten knowledge about these realms – and not primarily to generate practitioners. Production then is not an end itself, but in service to different primary outcomes. It would be misleading, and confusing of learning outcomes, if this was not made clear to students taking such courses. (Side note: the political economy of teaching production, i.e. extensive equipment and staffing outlay, explains why universities worldwide have embraced “media studies” courses rather than “media studies AND production” courses).
* Our mission statement at JMS commits us to generating “graduates and media workers”, who are empowered to work as “journalists and media practitioners able to make meaningful and technically proficient media productions”. This does not exclude that some graduates will choose not to become media practitioners, and instead choose to work as academics, analysts, media policy planners, etc. But the vision does put JMS’s priority on equipping undergraduate students with not just understanding, but also the knowledge of how to produce meaning that is journalistic (and to an extent other media-related).
* To this end, JMS students learn to do “journalism” as a production activity (and that is why they come here). Our vision statement reflects, however, that we further seek to ensure that graduates are simultaneously “self-reflexive, critical, analytical” through taking courses in “media studies” and “journalism studies” (sometimes integrated with their learning how to produce content).
* Students at JMS generally can’t take any one without the others. No one can do only pure production courses. However, the current honours and MA are indeed purely contemplative study (media studies and journalism studies), i.e. without learning how production as such. Their immediate rationale is to develop informed graduates, not advanced practitioners (even though some of their students are also practitioners). It’s horses for courses. The BA JMS, B.Journ and PGdip are programmes whose products are informed practitioners.
* All this constitutes an argument for an additional credit in the undergraduate major which would concentrate on media studies knowledge, and thereby free up space in the extant credits for more journalism studies and journalistic production. All undergraduate JMS students would be required to take the additional credit as a co-requisite.

Now:

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Next?:

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* The benefits are that more justice can be done to the three bodies of learning prescribed for students becoming practitioners: media studies, journalism studies, and (mainly journalistic) production.
* It’s also a win for those students, even outside the School, who want to specialise in the studies side exclusively, and who desire not to become practitioners but rather media-literate citizens – perhaps with a career as a media studies teacher, researcher or media analyst.

If we can reach agreement on theses like these above, we can move forward with common currency rather than talking at cross-purposes.