Speaking to the masses

As part of the University’s ‘Legacy of Leicester’ project, Roger Dickinson, Deputy Head of the Department of Media and Communication, looks back over the career of Professor Jim Halloran.

Professor Jim Halloran, founding director of the Centre for Mass Communication Research (now the Department of Media and Communication), was the first to be appointed as a professor of communication in Britain. He held this position from 1966 until his retirement in 1991. When the Centre for Mass Communication Research was first established, popular opinion at the time had implicated television in what was perceived as a rising tide of violence and aggressive behaviour among young people. Rejecting the findings of experimental studies that concluded that there was a causal connection between screen violence and aggressive behaviour, Halloran argued that it was not so much the violence that television depicted, but the images of unattainable affluent lifestyles that it showed that could cause frustration and unrealistic expectations among those on the wrong side of the social divide.

Halloran’s research emphasised the need to take a holistic and multidisciplinary approach to the study of the media and to apprehend their significance as social institutions and in the social contexts of their use. This was an unusual position to adopt at the time, breaking with much mainstream research which more often focused on the media’s influence on individual psychological processes. It opened the way for a more critical approach to the study of the media. A key piece of research, published as ‘Demonstrations and Communication’, examined the British news coverage of an anti-Vietnam war rally that took place in London in 1968. The study explored the routines of news production followed during the day of the protest and found that journalists followed stock patterns of reporting. These ‘inferential structures’ or ways of thinking about and making sense of news events in order to report them, shaped the news coverage and, in turn, helped to shape audience beliefs and opinions about the event. The emphasis in the news was on violence and demonstrators’ clashes with the police to the neglect of the motivations of the majority of protestors and the substance of their claims. Journalists’ inferential structures left little room for the airing of alternative interpretations and understandings of public protest and grassroots political action.

In this and other work the members of the newly-formed department questioned modern capitalism’s institutions and their interconnections. Did television serve the public through education and enlightenment or was it fundamentally concerned with the sale of goods and a particular way of seeing the world? Why are the media organized as they are, why and how is their output shaped and patterned in particular ways? Why do some voices dominate and why are some seldom heard? These questions have endured as the basis of continuing research today, though they have been refined in a multitude of ways and have been joined by many more as the world of the media has expanded. The contemporary media’s pervasiveness would have been difficult to imagine in the 1960s but a critical and questioning approach continues to underpin much of the research conducted in the department that Halloran left behind.

Halloran’s success in establishing a department for the study of the media rested on his ability to talk funding bodies into sponsoring work that would have wider relevance for media policy and practice. Equally important was his eye for academic talent: he persuaded some of the best young scholars in the field to join him at Leicester and created a productive and lively research environment for his team that over the next 20 years placed the department among the most respected centres for research into media and communications in the world.

Perhaps Halloran’s most important academic legacy is the International Association of Media and Communication Research (IAMCR). Elected its president in 1972, Halloran set about a programme of invigoration by devising and organising a schedule of bi-annual conferences that quickly stretched IAMCR’s influence across the globe. He worked with Unesco and other international organisations to bring scholars from all over the world together, amassing a membership of more than 2000 from more than 70 countries. The IAMCR remains the foremost international academic association for the study of the media.

By Roger Dickinson, Deputy Head of Department, Department of Media and Communication.

Explore the Legacy of Leicester project.

One Comment

  1. Rahma
    Posted 08/01/2014 at 08:36 | Permalink

    Halloran’s contribution to social research is very significant and there lies an opportunity for the University of Leicester, Department of Media and Communication, contemporaries and practitioners of Halloran’s approach to media research, to make sure this gets into the record. It important to produce a book in the history of media research and how approaches like these have immensely benefitted social sciences research. The approach applies to media labeled old or new. As emphasized by Roger Dickinson that “Halloran’s research emphasised the need to take a holistic and multidisciplinary approach to the study of the media and to apprehend their significance as social institutions and in the social contexts of their use. This was an unusual position to adopt at the time, breaking with much mainstream research which more often focused on the media’s influence on individual psychological processes. It opened the way for a more critical approach to the study of the media.” Halloran’s called for an eclectic approach to research, Anders added.

    I believe that this direction has influenced approaches to media of all kinds. As the University of Leicester called its discovery of Richard III legendary, this fact about the media research center it carries in its heart is not less important. Historians and social scientists should collaborate on releasing a book which shows the world how great the role of this organization and its researchers have had of influence in the directions in media research all over the world.

    Rahma

    [Reply]

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