Media vs. critical media studies

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When I explain to folks what I do here at Luther College, I'm occasionally asked, "So, what's the difference between media studies and critical media studies?" While airport terminals and restaurants aren't exactly appropriate venues to offer in-depth answers to said question, the Ideas and Creations Blog fits the bill nicely.

Ultimately, there are five characteristics of critical media studies that distinguish it from media studies:

1)  Encompasses multiple media

Once upon a time it was easy to find scholars that only did film studies, or only did newspaper studies, or only did television studies, but such is rarely the case anymore. Why is the pure film scholar no longer a reality? The reason is because film viewing takes place in movie theaters, on television tubes, on computer screens and on personal electronic devices. Thus, a critical media studies scholar needs to understand aesthetics, economics and politics of various types of media.

2)  Inherently interdisciplinary in nature

Communication studies scholars study media. We study it well, but it's important to recognize media is considered across a range of disciplines: anthropology, art, education, English, political science, sociology, etc. 

3)  Driven by pressing real world issues

Critical media studies can be driven by business interests, fan interests, theoretical concerns, and gaps in literature, but these things don't really take the "so what" question into consideration. The key is to think about impact and what's at stake in ways that carry weight with audiences not already invested in media effects. 

4)  Connects to broader constituencies

Discussion with folks moving in academic circles is valuable, of course, but a critical media studies scholar needs to act responsively to what the broader public should know and make a concerted effort to connect with them. This often involves speaking to industries, audiences, courts, legislators, etc. 

5)  Engages with cultural politics

When we go out in public, turn on the television, or open a newspaper, we consume media messages often addressing pressing political stakes.  Recognizing such stakes means engaging with issues of cultural power – who has it and who doesn't?


So, why does critical media studies matter? Critical media studies matters because media narratives contribute to the stories we live by and are used by parents to help socialize their children. Media are storytellers and are thus one source of the raw materials we draw from when we live our everyday lives and try to figure out who we are and where we are in the culture around us.

Thomas C. Johnson

Thomas C. Johnson

Thomas C. Johnson, an Associate Professor of Communication Studies, has taught critical media studies and media production courses at Luther since 2011. Along with teaching, his research interests include pedagogy, sport media, television studies, gender studies and documentary film.

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