The Importance of Media Studies in High School

Media Studies may be the single most important course that any high school student can take. Its significance as an area of learning goes way beyond helping students to determine career paths, or to gain marks towards graduation, though it may do those things too. Media Studies is about understanding the ways in which language is constructed and delivered, and as such, it addresses concerns which affect students every day of their lives.

There has never been a time with so much communication, or a time when all the signs and symbols of language are so important for young people to understand. As a by-product of this “Information Age”, there is a clamour for attention; never in history has so much time and money been spent on being heard. As a result, much of modern communication has secondary or hidden meanings which can influence an audience.

Examples of this are everywhere: in advertising, of course, but also in newspapers, television, political speeches, and social media. The subject matter of Media Studies touches students’ lives in many ways each day.

Media Studies can help students to make sense of a busy, information heavy world. It teaches them critical thinking skills and enables them to become more responsible, questioning citizens. The course can also support many of the other subjects jostling for room on an overcrowded curriculum.

For example, Media Studies’ emphasis on close and critical readings of texts aids students of English, while its analysis of how the various media create a sense of time and place can help those studying History or Geography. Because modern media are inextricably bound up in big business, and because their messages are often delivered using cutting edge technology, Media Studies can open windows of understanding for Commerce students, and for those interested in the latest innovations. Perhaps more important than any of these, however, is that Media Studies teaches young people to think for themselves, while developing a deeper appreciation for the intentions of those who created any particular message. In this way, the subject also addresses important issues to do with psychology, philosophy, sociology, and civics.

So, how does Media Studies work? Here is one very small example that any teacher can use to introduce the course.

In 2009, Susan Boyle became an overnight sensation when performing “I Dreamed a Dream” on the TV show, “Britain’s Got Talent”. One of the reasons for her incredible rise to super-stardom was a clip of her performance that was posted on YouTube. Various incarnations of this clip have been viewed around 150 million times, and many millions more were moved during the original screening. It’s a wonderful piece of film, not only for Boyle’s terrific performance, but also for the canny way in which the whole thing was crafted. In several ways, the film is manipulative, and even dishonest.

For instance, although the film is shot as though it is ‘live’, it is clear that selected responses by the audience and judges were added in later. Although Simon and the others seem genuinely surprised by Ms. Boyle’s performance, it is highly unlikely that Simon, at least – being a producer of the show – did not know what to expect. Watch the initial responses of the judges to Susan Boyle’s appearance and ask the students whether they seem to be rather too unkind. Consider her dowdy appearance and unflattering dress, and ask why the show’s producers offered no wardrobe advice, as is customary. Or did they?

The purpose of this exercise is to get students thinking about the reasons why texts – from movies to news broadcasts to phone messages – are created in a certain way. What was intended, and what is being read? Some of the most influential ideas on the role of media have been around for fifty years or more, and although an increasing number of texts – including websites – are being created to help young Media students, teachers may want to revisit the works of Marshall McLuhan or Vance Packard (“The Hidden Persuaders” 1957).

The lives of today’s young people are saturated by a multitude of media. From the Internet’s flashy allure to bumper stickers and roadside billboards, students are exposed to hundreds of messages each day that influence what they wear, watch and listen to, how they speak, and even how they think.

Students need to study the media because the media is certainly studying them. It’s time to turn the tables. Tomorrow’s young workers, consumers and voters will be derelict in their duty as full citizens if their decisions are being manipulated by a ubiquitous and enormously powerful media.