Media analysis and the lack of production-focused frameworks

By | February 19, 2017

When I first started to devise the Lean Media framework for media production, I expected to encounter others working on similar methodologies. So far, though, I have yet to find any structured frameworks that are expressly about making media.

That’s not to say that media people don’t think about what we do. We in the media have long been prone to reflection and analysis. By definition, we like to communicate with others, and express our ideas and creativity. We also enjoy explaining our visions and goals, and dissecting the work of others.

Until recently, media analysis was heavily focused on meaning and impact. There once was a class of professional media critics whose responsibilities included reviewing and analyzing new books, albums, TV shows, and videogames. I used to be very familiar with the way media critics worked, because at one time I was the editor of a weekly newspaper arts and entertainment supplement and had to write many such reviews myself. Our focus was usually the quality or significance of various works, and occasionally the processes used by creators. As you might expect, our opinions were filtered through our subjective biases, which were closely tied to popular or respected styles.

Meanwhile, in the op-ed sections of newspapers and magazines, the political and social pundits have long opined upon the societal impact of specific media works or entire genres. The pieces are almost always critical. One month it might be a screed against political bias in the news, followed the next month by a warning against the negative influences of violent video games or offensive music. There is often a nostalgic sheen to such pieces, contrasting the depravity of current works with the noble qualities of media from past ages. The hand-wringing over “Fake News” is the latest manifestation of this trend.

As an undergraduate at the Boston University College of Communication in the late 1980s, I was exposed to a third type of analysis, centered on the research, theories, and big ideas about media. At the time, there was a great deal of scholarly concern over how film and broadcast programming influenced people (perhaps as a result of the nonstop criticism in the popular press). In our Mass Communications lectures, we learned about the “magic bullet” theory, which tried to explain how messages in mass media impact audiences, as well as other ideas about the dissemination and acceptance of information via popular media.

The lectures, which were led by top journalism and communication scholars, would be peppered with references to Marshall McLuhan, Umberto Eco, and other communications scholars. Seminars would be more focused on a specific topic—for instance, in a class on television programming, we would pick apart Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television. Film studies would feature heavy duty analysis of the classics, such as Battleship Potemkin and Citizen Kane. It was all very interesting, but also very intellectual and abstract.

When it came to production-focused classes, it was a different world. The theoretical arguments from Mass Communications 101 did not have a place in the studios and darkrooms scattered around campus. Our instructors imparted lessons on the hard practicalities of writing a news story, positioning cameras for a television program, or learning how to read the ratings scorecard for Boston-area radio programs. There was also an emphasis on basic skills, from fact-checking a news story to achieving the right contrast in a scene for a film project. Recognizing that technology was advancing at an increasingly rapid pace, they tried to instill in us a flexibility toward the methods and mediums we might encounter, while encouraging a willingness to experiment. There were many opportunities for hands-on work, whether it was writing a documentary script, designing a marketing campaign for a fictitious radio station, or setting up a broadcasting studio for a new program.

As it was difficult to reconcile the heavy duty theory from the classroom with the practicalities of producing media, there was an opening for a practical framework (or even frameworks) for media producers. It took a few decades and exposure to some cutting-edge ideas from high-tech, but the Lean Media framework is now available for creators and producers to use.

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