Media discourse and media studies

So today in news that won’t come as a surprise to anyone who has been conscious for the last two decades, the American Sociological Review released a paper by Dr. Christopher Bail (who is not Batman but rather a sociologist at UNC Chapel Hill who might also be Batman), arguing that there has been a steady uptick in negative messages about Muslims in the media.

The paper is actually a pretty cool analysis of what Dr. Bail calls “The Fringe Effect” – the ability of minority voices in issues of cultural dispute to gain mainstream acceptance through the media’s repetition of their messages.  I admit, I’ve only given Dr. Batman’s paper a cursory read, but it looks like he’s making a pretty compelling case that the beliefs of fringe movements can gain mainstream acceptance, even if these groups themselves are still thought of as fringe.

This would seem to match perfectly with the modern Western perspective on Islam.  I don’t think Pamela Geller or Bill Warner will be winning a Pulitzer any time soon, but many of their claims still make their way into mainstream media, and by that way, are accepted, at least in part, by a sizable portion of Americans.  This is precisely how you get the current circumstance in which a significant portion of the U.S. still thinks President Obama is a Muslim, despite there being absolutely no evidence for that claim whatsoever.

“Media studies” as a field is a fairly new animal, and, at least from my experience in academia, not a terribly well-accepted one, but I think Dr. Bail’s study demonstrates precisely why it’s so important, and why it needs to become a larger portion of standard methodology in the humanities and social sciences.  I think a lot of the resistance to media studies just stems from a sense of it being silly – something we in the humanities are already hypersensitive about, because we’re the humanities and already feel like no one takes us seriously – and one of the main rejections tends to be some variation of “but it’s just…”  It’s just TV.  It’s just magazines.  It’s just comic books[1].  No one of these forms of social expression seems important enough to us to justify studying it.

But the reality is that ‘media studies’ is, and has always been, a major portion of the study of the humanities and social sciences.  We don’t just read Shakespeare or Herodotus or the Bible because we think they’re interesting or in order to study their writing style – we study them in order to try to reverse engineer what they tell us about the environment in which they were written, and we collect various examples from those environments in order to understand what messages were dominate and which were fringe, and how those messages developed over time.  We just didn’t do it with films or television shows because those things didn’t exist.  A historian who tried to study popular opinion on the American Revolution without reading private correspondence or newspaper articles from the period wouldn’t be taken very seriously – nor should anyone writing about modern perspectives who doesn’t considering television, film, books, magazines, comic books and the internet.

I think part of the academic resistance to media studies is also that it’s personal.  We don’t feel like television has a major impact on how we see ourselves or each other – after all, we’re clever, well-educated people with walls full of degrees – but media studies tells us that it’s probably true.  We, as academics and scholars, are as much affected by the media messaging Dr. Batman is discussing as the average American – potentially more so, because we’re in a position to further influence the message being made.  There’s a reason why so much of the recent grant money and academic funding being spent in Islamic studies is earmarked for the study of the modern Middle East or the study of religious extremism, and that reason isn’t because we all had the same weird dream where Jim Morrison and a naked Native American told us to study jihad.

But the problem is that it *has* to be part of the conversation.  It’s not just that media studies might be relevant – in a society in which we are constantly wired in to media sources, it’s massively relevant.  And similarly, in a society in which news media is big business, there has to be some sense of accountability, beyond the weird “unbiased means always having two people yelling at each other” detente that we have now.  As Dr. Bail’s research well-illustrates, these media messages, and misrepresentations, have real-life stakes, and disturbingly, at the moment, we don’t really have any idea how to correct them.  Once these false messages receive mainstream status, it’s incredibly difficult to get rid of them.  Do you think aspartame causes cancer?  Or that if you’re arrested, you always get one phone call?  So do most people, but that doesn’t make them true.  We need to start considering the bias in our own media, not because it’s right or fair, but because it’s necessary for us as scholars in order to be able to do our jobs properly, in order to start stemming the tide of ridiculous misrepresentations being presented as fact.  As the great Aaron Sorkin said, “[people] want leadership.  They’re so thirsty for it, they’ll crawl through the desert toward a mirage, and when they discover there’s no water, they’ll drink the sand.”

[1] And yes, I’m aware that all of the examples I just threw out there have to do with feminism and the media message of women’s bodies in one way or another.  As it happens, this is one of the few fields that has embraced media studies, so those are the examples I have.

About askanislamicist

I'm an academic who specializes in early Islamic history and the history of religious interactions, who, in her free time, enjoys shouting into the internet.
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