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What is Media Studies?

Richard Gent | Wednesday November 11, 2009

Categories: Key Concepts, Audience, Genre, Ideology, Institutions, Media Language, Narrative, Representation & Stereotyping, Other Topics

Media Studies isn’t easy to describe. It’s a living concept that continues to change just as technology and our experience with technology change. The purpose of Media Studies is to provide audiences with access to information no matter how it is experienced and allow people to adopt diverse critical positions.

Media Studies is desirable because its curriculum is inclusive; it recognises that the form of delivery as well as the content to be delivered needs to be studied in context. This inclusive, multi-media curriculum provides opportunities for cross-curricular skills to be developed.

Students engage with some types of media by choice. A message delivered using media that is appropriate to a target audience can be accessed and processed rapidly. Mike Wesch, Assistant Professor of Cultural Anthropology and Digital Ethnography at Kansas State University, produced a series of Youtube videos that highlight the importance of form in education as part of his on-going work on ‘Mediated Cultures’.


In short, students are given the opportunity to learn about their world using the media that exist within it. This inclusive approach touches on the issue of creativity, an issue that Sir Ken Robinson raised and explored at a TED conference in 2006.


At its core Media Studies assumes, just as Rousseau suggested in his Social Contract, that ‘Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.’ These chains include language and other media. Media Studies is growing in popularity partly because society is beginning to account for the child born in the mediated world. Our citizens need a language and theoretical framework, a media literacy, which engages with and articulates the issues and experiences encountered in our mediated culture. Notably, it is the same sense of play and imagination experienced in childhood that is prized in media industries. Our children might just be teetering on the brink of an education system poised to privilege creativity in all its forms.

Richard Gent

Creativity and the manifestation of creativity in the form of production skills play a principal role in Media Education. Students both analyse media texts and make them. One activity informs the other. Production tasks can include all sorts of individual and team enterprises including the research, planning and making of music videos, newspapers, magazines, posters, interviews, soaps, films and trailers, animation, websites, blogs and video games. The distribution, marketing, regulation and evaluation of these products become part of the creative process and can be assessed.

Being taught how to be critical of the messages we receive allows us to adopt active and passive positions. As a result the audience becomes more difficult to classify as it is increasingly recognised as both agent and recipient. Form, content and context affect the way a message is received and interpreted.

Media Literacy in the US and Media Studies in the UK tend to approach the investigation and analysis of a text, idea, product or event through a set of key concepts including Media Language, Institutions, Audience and Representation. The acronym LIAR provides an apt aide-memoire. Other key concepts commonly addressed in Media Education are Ownership, Ideology, Genre and Narrative. The key concepts, once explained to students using examples, form a critical framework that can be applied to any text. 

Media Education is the subject area within education and academic studies that encourages people to question their own and others’ media use, and to analyse media products, media institutions and media technologies. In Europe, media education is often referred to as media literacy and it was in Great Britain that the idea was first put into practice in the context of school teaching.  It is in school curricula that media education is most formalized, though it addresses adults’ as well as children’s media use.

There are several key issues that structure the media education curriculum.  These include the patterns of ownership of media organizations, where the national and global holdings of corporations such as News Corporation, Disney or Time Warner are assessed in terms of the concentration of media power in the hands of a few main players.  The laws and regulations of media industries are also studied, in relation to censorship, bias, and assumptions about the influence of the media (especially on children).  In terms of specific media texts like TV shows, films or magazine ads, media education asks what audience the text is addressed to, and how the conventions of a certain genre or form are used to target the audience with particular meanings. Looking more closely at media audiences, media education is interested in how different groups of viewers or readers interpret media content in different ways according to (for example) age, sex, gender or economic status.  Because of recent rapid changes in the global media landscape, media education has a special interest in newer technologies such as the Internet, social networking and mobile communications.

Media education began in the 1930s on the assumption that mass media had bad effects on society, and that educating citizens about how media products are made would help to protect them from their impact. By the 1960s the emphasis moved to offering media education as a tool-kit that would enable ordinary people to originate their own media culture (in local TV, or small-scale print publications). In the 1970s and 1980s, theoretical developments in academic media studies, such as semiotics, led media education to focus on deconstructing media representations to reveal their hidden ideological assumptions, especially about gender.  Most recently, media education has become interested in audiences, conducting studies of individual media users or audience groups, to provide a more finely-textured understanding of how and why media are used in the context of ordinary life.


www.mediaed.org (Media Education Foundation): ‘produces and distributes documentary films and other educational resources to inspire critical reflection on the social, political, and cultural impact of American mass media.’

Buckingham, D., Moving Images: Understanding Children’s Emotional Responses to Television (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1996).

Buckingham, D., Media Education: literacy, learning and contemporary culture (Cambridge: Polity, 2003).

Hodge, B. and D. Tripp, Children and Television: A Semiotic Approach (Cambridge: Polity, 1986).

Jonathan Bignell
University of Reading, UK