Media studies in Australia is composed of both a ‘critical’ approach, commonly thought of as a European tradition, and a ‘pragmatic’ approach from the United States. The pragmatic approach is based on a functionalist understanding of society, in that it assumes society is made up of a group of individuals who agree on common values. It utilises a scientific model of communication, where the meaning is specific and contained in the message. This type of approach favours content analysis, which is “a research tool used to determine the presence of certain words or concepts within texts or sets of texts. Researchers quantify and analyze the presence, meanings and relationships of such words and concepts, then make inferences about the messages within the texts, the writer(s), the audience, and even the culture and time of which these are a part.”1 This type of approach favours newspapers/programs, as details about the content (e.g. space in a newspaper devoted to local vs. overseas news) can be quickly discerned. Conversely, the critical approach stems from a Marxist understanding of society, in that society is divided up into an upper class (bourgeoisie) who controls the media, and a working class (proletariat) who are the target of the media messages. Critical approach uses a semiotic model of communication, where the meaning is interpreted by the reader rather than being inherent in the text. Critical approach favours a more personal interpretation of the meaning, where the reader must draw on other texts and their own personal experiences. This sort of approach favours advertisements, and fictional texts.

Both the pragmatic and critical approach propagate the power of the media in different ways, but whereas the pragmatic tradition believes that the media serves to reproduce and pass on society’s socially accepted attitudes and values between generations, the critical approach trusts that the media serves to enforce the dominance of the upper class over the working class. Sinclair acknowledges that up until very recently that this critical belief “formed what some labelled the ‘dominant ideology thesis’ which, by the 1980’s, had emerged as the prevalent theoretical orientation in media studies.”23 The critical tradition does have an aspect in common with the U.S. tradition however, where it examines the political economy; the study of ownership, regulation and control and its effects on media content. While keeping with the Marxist ideas of media and society, it spotlights the sender end of the communication process, and utilises statistical evidence – both features of the pragmatic tradition. Largely though, the critical tradition values what the reader makes of a text rather than what the text is saying, firmly placing trust in the fact that meaning is produced through a reader’s engagement and interpretation of a text.

The pragmatic approach’s biggest strength is that it allows us to remove personal bias from an analysis, as the results produced are based on statistics. It is also possible to gain the results quite quickly – procedures like content analysis are relatively easy to undertake, and the results can be as detailed as is desired. The statistic weight and the absence of any personal input does not imply that the U.S. tradition is perfect in analysing a text, but rather is a good starting point for a deeper study of a text. The pragmatic approach fails when the definitions for counting the results are weak, and when more information is needed than a simple amount (i.e. A comparison between television stations over which has the most local news cannot determine the quality of the news). Turner4 claims that to gain a better understanding of a text, we must be able to distance ourselves from thinking of it as a ‘message’, and view it in regard to context and content. The critical approach succeeds exactly where the U.S. tradition fails – acknowledging that the quality of the content is more important than the amount of times certain words or topics crop up. The critical approaches strength can also be it’s weakness however; a textual analysis is dependent on who performs it, what their background information is on the subject, previous experiences, and to a significant extent, their culture – different people will have wildly different interpretations of the same text. McKee promotes the principle that “Whenever anyone claims that a particular text is ‘accurate’ or ‘truthful’ or ‘reflects reality’, what they are really saying is ‘I agree with what this text is saying about the world’."5 Any qualitative analysis of a text is going to strive for a complete understanding of a text, but will always fall short, as there is no incorrect interpretation. In addition, any analysis is going to produce a text of its own, which in turn can be studied.

While the critical approach initially seems more useful with its emphasis on unfixed meaning in text, neither the European nor the U.S. tradition can give us a thorough understanding of the media by itself. The pragmatic approach can provide us with how often a topic might be reported on in the media, but it can’t illustrate the way the topic is dealt with. Likewise performing a textual analysis on a text will display what we think about it, but we will not only be missing out on other interpretations, also we may completely misjudge the significance of the text. Clearly both are needed and must be used appropriately for us to gain a good understanding of the media.

1. (Copyright 1997-2003 Colorado State University), “An Introduction to Content Analysis”, (Writing @CSU: Writing Guide), Available: (Accessed: 2003, March 31)

2. Sinclair, J. “Media and Communications: Theoretical Traditions” in S. Cunningham and G. Turner (eds), The Media and Communications in Australia, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2002, P. 25

3. Turner, G. “Media Analysis: Competing Tradition” (excerpt) in S. Cunningham and G. Turner (eds), The Media in Australia: Industries, Texts, Audiences, (2nd edition), Allen & Unwin, St. Leonards, 1997, P. 298

4. Turner, G. “Media Analysis: Competing Tradition” (excerpt) in S. Cunningham and G. Turner (eds), The Media in Australia: Industries, Texts, Audiences, (2nd edition), Allen & Unwin, St. Leonards, 1997, P. 310

5. McKee, A. “A Beginner’s Guide to Textual Analysis” in Metro Magazine, No. 127/128, 2001, P. 144

I suspect the anonymous 'plagiarist' softlinks come about as an aversion to my chatterbox banter, but I'll provide a disclaimer anyway. I wrote this for a reputible Australian university, having to sign my name on a cover sheet confirming that it was completely my own work. It has been assessed by the university and I have had no correspondence regarding any plagiarism. Of course, if anyone's absolutely convinced that I'm ripping someone off, provide me with some evidence.


Didn't think so.

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