Media History Essay

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Media history as a concept in its own right possesses a relatively recent lineage. In the early decades of the twentieth century, when references to ‘the media’ – newspapers, magazines, cinema, radio, and the like – were entering popular parlance, university academics tended to be rather skeptical about whether these institutions were important enough to warrant scholarly attention. Traditional historians, in particular, were inclined to be dismissive. Matters would gradually improve over the course of the century, but even today, media history continues to occupy a contested terrain between the principal disciplines informing its development, namely media studies (broadly inclusive of communication, cultural, and journalism studies) and history.

Early conceptions of media history frequently accorded the commercial press a central role in promoting social change, one especially worthy of close scrutiny. These days much of this research tends to be criticized for being celebratory, however, even romanticizing the press as the pre-eminent catalyst for advancing the cause of freedom in the face of fierce government opposition. In order to overcome the limitations of this ‘Whig interpretation,’ as it has been described, media historians have begun to diversify their sources and methods. For some this has entailed looking beyond the views of the powerful and privileged so as to recover and interpret the experiences of those typically marginalized – on the basis of class, gender, ethnicity or sexuality – where the making of media history is concerned.

Serious reservations have been expressed by some historians about the very legitimacy of media history as a proper academic subject when it encompasses ostensibly trivial, ephemeral media items (advertisements, comics, graffiti, soap operas, paperback fiction, music videos, computer games, and the like) within its purview. Others have challenged this perspective, insisting that such value judgments be avoided so as to engage with the whole spectrum of emergent media in all of their complexity.

Defining Media History

Depending on how one chooses to define ‘the media,’ a case can be made that media history properly begins in the earliest days of human social life and communication. For researchers interested in the emergence of media in oral or pre-literate communities thousands of years ago, for example, the insights of archaeologists and anthropologists have proven invaluable. The advent of reading and writing is of particular significance, enabling the dissemination of news or information at a distance, and thereby helping to sustain a shared sense of social order. Studies have examined the emergence and use of various media facilitating communication, ranging from pictographs written on clay tablets, to papyrus, paper, and eventually the movable type of the printing press.

For many media historians, it is the connection between emergent media of communication and the creation of democratic society that is particularly fascinating. In this context, Anderson’s (1983) analysis of the rise of print as commodity in western Europe illuminates the emergence of nationality – “the personal and cultural feeling of belonging to a nation” – toward the end of the eighteenth century. He singles out for attention in this regard the fictional novel and the newspaper, arguing that the corresponding print languages helped to engender national consciousness in important ways.

Complementing this line of inquiry into how print enriched the ability of people to relate to themselves and to others in new ways have been efforts to understand how these media shaped the formation of public opinion. Here researchers have found the notion of a public sphere, as theorized by Jurgen Habermas (1989), to be useful, especially when investigating how spaces for public discussion and debate were initiated and sustained. Habermas identifies a range of institutions facilitating this process, with special attention devoted to coffee houses and the newspaper press.

Related studies have elucidated the ways in which various media forms and practices helped to give shape to new kinds of public sociability. Such studies include examinations of advertising, art, music, street literature, exhibitions in museums and galleries, as well as reading and language societies, lending libraries, and the postal system, among other concerns. Historiographies continue to rehearse contrary views on the extent to which the normative ideals of a public sphere have been realized in actual terms, a debate that continues to percolate. Nevertheless, there is general agreement that a consideration of the relative freedoms espoused by these ideals throw into sharp relief many of the factors that have acted to constrain public discussion over time.

Researching Media History

For media historians, the rationale for their craft is often expressed as a commitment to interdisciplinarity so as to situate the evolution of media forms, practices, institutions, and audiences within broader processes of societal change. Compounding this challenge, however, is the recognition that media processes can be ephemeral, and thereby elusive in conceptual and methodological terms. Often their very normality, that is, the extent to which they are simply taken for granted as a part of everyday life, means efforts to de-normalize them require considerable effort.

Media historians, it follows, must strive to be sufficiently self-reflexive about their chosen strategies when gathering source material and interpreting evidence, especially where questions related to ‘effects’ or causation are being addressed. Pertinent in this regard is the status of electronic media, for example, which may pose particular problems for the historian seeking to establish relations of significance. Not only are the actual texts under scrutiny – e.g., an early radio play or television broadcast – unlikely to be amenable to more traditional, print-based methods, but issues with regard to such logistical considerations as access, physical artifacts (microphones, receiver sets, and the like), and format-compatibility (changes in formats can make playback difficult) may surface.

The advent of digital technologies is already engendering similar types of issues for media historians. Scholarship increasingly entails finding alternative ways to manage, interpret, and preserve the extensive array of materials available across different storage systems. The sheer volume and range of these materials, coupled with continuing innovation in hardware and software (the obsolescence of technology rendering some types of data difficult to retrieve), can make for challenging decisions about how to maintain libraries, archives, databases, and other repositories of information. New questions are being posed in this regard by electronic records, including items such as electronic mail, voicemail messages, word-processing documents, Internet websites, message boards, blogs, Facebook accounts, Tweets and the like, all of which are highly perishable.

Precisely how media history research will evolve invites thoughtful consideration. Current efforts to build on the foundations set down by the press histories of the nineteenth century are making progress in enriching these traditions, while also pursuing new directions that recast familiar assumptions – sometimes in unexpected ways. The types of criticisms of ‘standard’ media history identified by Carey, namely that its arguments were based on “nothing more than speculation, conjecture, anecdotal evidence, and ideological ax grinding” (and where conclusions were not “theoretically or empirically grounded; none was supported by systematic research”), no longer aptly characterize the field (1996, 15–16). Indeed, it is reasonable to suggest that there is every indication media history will continue to develop in ever more methodologically rigorous – and intellectually exciting – directions.


  1. Anderson, B. (1983). Imagined communities. London: Verso.
  2. Briggs, A. & Burke, P. (2010). A social history of the media, 3rd edn, Cambridge: Polity.
  3. Carey, J. W. (1996). The Chicago School and the history of mass communication research. Repr. in James Carey: A critical reader (eds. E. S. Munson & C. A. Warren). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, pp. 14–33.
  4. Habermas, J. (1989). The structural transformation of the public sphere. Cambridge: MIT Press.
  5. Mulhmann, G. (2008). A political history of journalism. Cambridge: Polity.

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