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Solid Overview of Media Studies

The Media Studies Reader

Edited by Tim O'Sullivan and Yvonne Jewkes
1997, 461 pp, $46.95, ISBN 0-340-64547-4

Reviewed by Kirsten Cowan

How have the dramatic changes in mass communications technology affected the way we understand every aspect of our world? This is the question posed, in a multitude of guises, by many of the contributors to The Media Studies Reader. The need to understand the impact of media on our lives has affected every academic discipline, from philosophy to sociology, political science to literature. An interdisciplinary approach, loosely labeled as media studies or cultural studies, has slowly taken shape, and its formative texts and tenets make their appearances in this formidable text, definitely aimed at the student. Articles close with questions for discussion and reflection, a particularly valuable addition for some of the more impenetrable material.

Our relationship to mass communications vehicles has changed drastically over the past decades. This is demonstrated vividly by one of the first articles in The Reader, "The Invasion From Mars". Originally published in 1940, this piece takes a sober look at the hysteria following the 1938 radio broadcast of H.G. Wells' The War of The Worlds. The widespread belief in the infallibility of the mass media is starkly illustrated by the implicit faith many listeners had in the veracity of the reports of Martian invasions. The discussion question poses an interesting thought, comparing this event to the current common categorization of television as a "dangerous medium". Could the War of the Worlds panic reoccur? Or is the modern media consuming audience too sophisticated? Perhaps we are heirs to that panic in the intense media fervour that surrounds such created "news" as the O.J. Simpson trial and the death of Princess Diana.

A contrast with the 1930s War of the Worlds listener is provided in a later section with "Looking at the Sun: Into the Nineties with a Tabloid and its Readers." The sophistication of readers of the British tabloid The Sun emerges from this paper. According to its author, many of those enjoying the right-wing, puerile Thatcherism of The Sun are in fact interacting with it on a multitude of levels, including an articulate and conscious one of irony and mockery.

The Media Studies Reader takes on the formidable task of providing an overview of thought produced in one of academia's most prolific new fields. By ranging across time as well as subject matter, The Reader manages to achieve its goal quite admirably. Not only an examination of the most stylish thought of the day, but also a look back at the founding principles that have helped modern media critics and analysts understand something of the often unacknowledged power which the media hold in all our lives. By tackling local and global manifestations of the power of the media, as well as its permutations in the areas of race, gender and that strength of British publications, class, The Media Studies Reader provides a balanced look at an exciting discipline. It is hardly an easy read. Although many of the articles are surprisingly accessible, the bulk are clearly best explored in a classroom setting. The discussion questions appended to every reading, and the grouping of the pieces into thematic clusters do help the reader grapple with them. A commitment to the study of media or a love of theory is a prerequisite for this text, but it will make a long-lasting and valuable contribution to the appropriate bookshelf.

Kirsten Cowan is Marketing and Circulation Co-ordinator for Sources.

Published in Sources, Number 44, Summer 1999.


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