The idea of “media” has transformed during the past two decades, largely due to the advent of the internet and social media. The modern digital age has introduced a media landscape built on a 24-hour news cycle, instant communication, and a globally connected world. How media is shared and consumed has shifted from traditional print medium to a complex ecosystem of online content, film, and video. This change has altered every industry, from advertising to cinema, journalism to brick-and-mortar retail. While productive in many ways, this ecosystem has also created a world of constant information bombardment that makes communicating messages that actually reach an audience increasingly difficult.
Master’s programs in media studies teach students about the cultural, social, political, and economic underpinnings of media and how they can use various media types to devise stories, advertising collateral, and other messages that break through the wall of noise and reach specific audiences.
Classification of Master’s in Media Studies Programs
What once was the purview of journalism programs, media studies has branched out into its own unique sphere of academic study. One central reason is the massive transformation of the media landscape, driven largely by the internet. And, in turn, the seismic impact information technology has had on media creation and consumption–across film, television, gaming, mobile devices, and more.
A growing field, graduate programs in media studies are becoming increasingly interdisciplinary, bringing together faculty from across various departments, such as media arts and production, communication, journalism, law, and English. Students gain a fundamental understanding of media’s historical developments and learn how to research and evaluate media’s societal impacts.
In most cases, graduate programs in media studies are offered in a Master of Arts (M.A.) track. Example programs include the Master of Arts in Media Studies at West Virginia State University, the Master of Arts in Media Studies at the University of Texas, and Master of Media Studies at Penn State University. While media studies programs may share a common academic name, they are housed in a variety of different departments, such as communication, arts and humanities, journalism, and media production.
Because of the field’s comprehensive nature, universities have started to craft specialized academic approaches to their graduate degree programs. These specializations include new degree programs that focus on different areas of study, such as the following:
- Southern Illinois University: Master of Arts in Media Theory and Research
- Michigan State University: Master of Arts in Media and Information
- Temple University: Master of Arts in Media Studies and Production
- Boston University: Master of Arts in Emerging Media Studies
- MIT: Master’s in Comparative Media Studies
To that end, most graduate programs allow students to specialize their studies in a professional area of interest. Common specializations include the following:
- Digital Media
- Film Studies
- Media Law and Ethics
- New Media
- Political Communication
Curriculum Details for Master’s Programs in Media Studies
Media studies is a wide-reaching field of study, one that brings together a range of disciplines in the arts, social sciences and humanities to further understanding of media’s history, structure and impact on society. However, during the past twenty years, the field has transformed, growing in importance with the advent of the internet and increasing sophistication of technology and digital media. In response, universities have expanded the scope of graduate programs in media studies to prepare students for the 21st century’s digital economy.
Through a series of foundational courses in media, ranging from media theory to mass media and social institutions, visual media and cultural studies to global communication, students gain an appreciation and working knowledge of media’s far reaching impact culturally and economically. A multidisciplinary curriculum teaches students how to analyze and interpret various media types, segment and analyze audience behavior, develop and produce media (e.g. video, graphic design), and communicate effectively across the medium spectrum (e.g. radio, television, documentary).
In their first year of study, students take classes in fundamental, theory-based subjects, such as mass communication theory, communication research methods, media institutions and law, and ethics of digital media. After completing 12 to 15 credit hours of core classwork, students then progress into specialized study through 15 to 18 credit hours in elective courses. Elective classes allow students to shape an individualized program of classes that prepare them for advanced professional careers after graduation. These subjects could range from a focus on media production to media theory and criticism, as well as cultural studies and storytelling with digital media.
Below is a list of sample courses students in a master’s in media studies may take during their program:
- Digital Storytelling: A foundational review of digital presentation throughout visual media formats, focusing on visual design, including theory, manipulation methods, design software and effective design practices.
- Media Law: An overview of the legal issues behind various media types, from radio to satellite, internet to television, focusing on copyright regulations, intellectual property laws, FCC issues, and other media legislation.
- Digital Media and Politics: An introduction to the relationship between digital media and political institutions, introducing students to how media shapes perception and impacts real political events.
- Communications Research: A fundamental review of the philosophical and methodological underpinnings of quantitative research, teaching students how to conduct research and use statistical software to evaluate media- and communications-based research.
- History of Film: A survey of film history that explores the development and aesthetic changes of motion pictures, studying how film serves as an entertainment medium, a style of expression, a business, and a form of technology.
- Global Media: A critical discussion of the globalization of media, examining the media’s role in fostering political, cultural, and economic discourse in various cultural contexts.
As discussed above, master’s in media studies programs traditionally require students to earn between 30 and 36 credit hours of study to graduate. In addition, most programs require a final project, such as a portfolio, a program of work or a thesis to finish their master’s in media studies.
Below is a table with a sample course plan for students completing a master’s in media studies.
Master’s in Media Studies versus Master’s in Mass Communication
Master’s in mass communication and master’s in media studies programs can overlap considerably in course content. For example, both master’s in media studies and master’s in mass communication programs often have classes in media management, media law and ethics, quantitative and qualitative research methods in communication, and digital storytelling. Additionally, both master’s in media studies and master’s in mass communication programs may have specialization options that allow students to prepare for industry careers in communication and media, as well as research or academic positions in these fields.
However, these two types of programs are nevertheless distinct fields of study, and their differences are often illustrated in their concentration courses. Mass communication is defined as all forms of communication that reach broad audiences, which includes communications between an organization (e.g. a corporation, non-profit, or government body) and the public. Master’s in mass communication programs often allow students to concentrate in public relations, marketing, journalism, or social media, and to take classes that help them build skills that are applicable to jobs in these fields. Graduate programs in mass communication may also have more classes that focus on communication specifically, such as communication theory, communication law, contemporary mass communication, speech writing, and communication technologies.
Conversely, Master’s in media studies programs tend to have more electives in media theory, the history of different media forms, film theory and criticism, and media and culture. Media studies programs also typically offer more classes that focus on larger-picture topics such as national and international media institutions, media research, visual media and its role in cultural development, and digital media theories and criticism.
With that said, there are also master’s in media studies programs that have classes in public relations, marketing, journalism, and other forms of communication relevant to careers in industry. Furthermore, there are master’s in mass communication programs that have more of a media studies or theoretical focus, allowing students to study the cultural impact of media and vice versa, race and gender representation in media, and the history of mass media. Generally speaking, graduates of either master’s in media studies programs or master’s in mass communication programs can pursue similar careers in marketing, public relations, journalism, online media, and communication research and instruction.
Both types of programs give students a strong grasp of media’s infrastructure, and how forms of communication intersect with public psychology and behavior, as well as cultural and political institutions. And students of both types of program learn the elements of strong and effective messaging for a variety of target audiences across different media channels. (e.g. web, print, digital, social, television). Due to the overlaps between these two types of programs, and the variances between the courses they offer, students interested in mass communication and/or media studies should not rely simply on program titles, but instead, they should examine the required and elective courses offered by programs of interest to ensure that they align with their professional and academic goals post-graduation.
Career Paths for Graduates with a Master’s in Media Studies
In their graduate programs, media studies students gain the ability to identify and understand the cultural foundations that impact different forms of communication, as well as the ability to create compelling and ethical written and multimedia content for specific audiences. Students who complete a master’s in media studies program may pursue employment in a wide variety of fields, including the following:
- Public relations
- Media Planning
- Advertising and marketing
- Market Research
- Video and Film Production
Whether it is working as an advertising account manager, a documentary film producer, a copywriter for a local advertising agency, or a market research analyst, there are numerous paths that graduates with a master’s in media studies may want to pursue.
- Media Buyer: Using their knowledge of audience behavior and advertising consumption, media buyers work with clients to plan, negotiate and purchase advertising across an array of media channels, including the internet, television, radio, theatres, newspapers and magazines, and more.
- Media Analyst: Media analysts employ quantitative and qualitative research to study and analyze audience-based market information to develop effective and targeted marketing campaigns across a variety of media platforms (e.g. radio, internet, television).
- Videographer: Videographers combine their theoretical understanding of storytelling with practical skills in camera work to coordinate, shoot and edit professional-level video production projects.
- Web Producer: Leveraging their knowledge of online media, web producers manage website content, developing plans to create content collateral that is optimized for their websites’ users to sell products, enhance brands, connect with audiences, and more.
- Digital Media Consultant: Digital media consultants conduct market research and use a variety of online marketing tools (e.g. websites, blogs, social media) to craft digital campaigns to reach targeted business audiences.