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Derek McMillan

The Media in Question

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The Media in Question

Robert Ferguson

ISBN 0-340-74078-7

Media Studies appears on the curriculum in your child's school but a popular front stretching from Polly Toynbee in the Guardian to Chris Woodhead in the Telegraph denigrate it as a "soft option" and suggest that anyone who studies or researches it is wasting their time. They would much prefer it, for example, if their prose were read without any analysis. Not only does Robert Ferguson champion this much-maligned subject but he also adopts a heretical view on teaching it. For him it is not a subject which casts the teacher in the role of a sheepdog directing pupils to pre-determined answers but one in which students and researchers work together both on the skills of media production and on the analysis of media texts.

The TV or movies are often seen as realistic because "the camera cannot lie." However, for example, the people taking the decisions on how to represent a war can decide whether to focus on faithfully showing "the action on the front line" or (like Michael Moore) also pay attention to the grieving mothers, the recruitment of disadvantaged youngsters into the army and to the big business interests which profit from warfare. As Ferguson puts it:

"realism, while dependent partly upon verisimilitude1, is also dependent on creating, sustaining or challenging the audience's understanding of the world being represented. It is not necessary to agree with what a text offers in terms of dialogue, acting and so on, in order to accept it as realist. The irony is that realism is often most persuasive when any superficial criteria ('that looks like a battlefield') are transcended by thosewhich are more complex ('after the film, you knew more about the nature of warfare and those in whose interets it is pursued.') and are not dependent upon surface appearance."

If "Media Studies" is divorced from ideology it is reduced to issues of technique in a vacuum. Understanding the "how" without tackling the "why" is sterile. Studying the media also involves studying the society which produces media images. Questioning is central to Robert Ferguson's approach and time and again he causes the reader to go beyond simplistic analyses.

For example when dealing with 'race' in the media, he invites the reader to go beyond the basic semiotic2 analysis and look at the contradictions and tensions within media messages. Media messages draw on what he terms a "discursive reserve". This is a set of ideas which the media both "feeds" and reinforces. A media text will not have a single meaning for a single audience, it will have *meanings* for *audiences* and an analysis of how these "work" is more fruitful than seeking the one meaning of the text.

He also draws attention to the very real consequences of racism beyond the media.

"On the one hand it is clear that much of the construction of otherness, the exotic and issues of 'race' is accomplished through complex modes of discourse and representation. On the other it is apparent to all but the most solipsistic that people's lived existence, and their deaths, cannot be reduced to the discursive. We have to face the contradictions and dilemmas thrown up at the interface of the discursive and the material. We must also recognise that, as media students and researchers, our relationship to our field of study cannot be that of a 'free floating' intellectual, questioner or researcher."

Postmodernism sheds light and casts shadows in roughly equal measure. The book evaluates the contribution of postmodernism whilst dealing ruthlessly with its shortcomings.

"The main challenge offered by the concept of postmodernism for the media studies student and researcher is that it invites a debate to which there is no easy or final conclusion. Postmodern media texts open the door for the celebration of consumerism and liberation from the constraints of some forms of totalitarianism. At the same time, postmodernity is a period of intense insecurity. In its denial of totalizing theory, it is prone to a new totalitarianism which is insistent upon fragmentation and difference. Political solidarity does not sit happily beside the postmodern."

The book intentionally raises more questions than it answers but anyone who really wants to know what media studies is about and why it is important could do a lot worse than start with this book.

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