UP Vice-Chancellor interrogates the role of media in a ‘disrupted age’ in Inaugural Lecture

Posted on August 20, 2021

Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Pretoria (UP) Professor Tawana Kupe put on his researcher hat when he recently presented his virtual Inaugural Lecture.

The Vice-Chancellor, who is a critical media studies scholar, delivered a talk titled ‘New media, new society: Reimagining media and society in a disrupted age’.

“The Inaugural Lecture represents an important milestone in the career of an academic as it provides the professor presenting the lecture with the opportunity to inform the university community more broadly about their academic journey, their research to date as well as the direction they hope to steer their research in future,” said Prof Norman Duncan, Vice-Principal: Academic.

Prof Kupe began by highlighting the current global situation, marked by looming climate crisis and the seemingly unending COVID-19 pandemic on the one hand, and the birth of new technologies and new media on the other.

“We live in an age of multiple ongoing, intersecting disruptions of all our institutions, which require deep, ‘thoroughgoing’ reform to create sustainable societies in harmony with nature,” he said. “There is no better example than a recent 4 000-page scientific report that states categorically that we live in the age of catastrophic climate change caused by human activity, that it will get worse and it might be too late to do something about it.”

He added that despite various challenges – such as political strife; distrust or loss of trust in institutions; economic crises; inequality; poverty and unemployment; and multiplying forms of violence, including gender-based violence – new media and technologies present the unique opportunity to improve some of these societal ills.

“We live an era of rapidly advancing technologies, including media technologies, that have the potential both to enable societal renewal and to advance humanity as some technologies have done historically. These technologies carry the promise of a new media landscape that could serve as a platform for societal renewal. A new digitally driven media landscape could replace the communication systems, processes and forms that have been in existence for about two centuries.”

Prof Kupe shared that his research has been concerned in part with how the media can be used to advance freedom of speech.

“The quest in my research [has been] to understand critically how media can best advance the fundamental human right of freedom of expression, which is necessary to create substantively democratic, prosperous, equal, just and sustainable societies that enhance humanity and the planet.”

One of the areas of critical media studies that Prof Kupe explores is that of media ownership and the influence it wields.

“Critical media studies approach media content or messages as ‘re-presentations’ of reality shaped by institutional and organisational contexts, as well as by a range of societal factors and situations, including the policy regime. The concept of re-presentation – or the more common terms: content, images or messages – is analytically important because it allows for distinguishing between reality as such and the reality created by the media.”

Re-presentation, he added, also means that the media decides on what and how to reflect reality. “In other words, what is included and what is not included in the reflections are equally important,” Prof Kupe said. “In critical media studies, the selections or choices that the media makes and what exactly influences and shapes these [choices] is of major interest. In this regard, it is important to critically analyse whoever is represented and given a voice.

“An important question is whether the media is a voice for all; in other words, does the media represent diversity in society or reproduce stereotypes, biases and prejudices? Ultimately, the key question is whether the media questions the social order or merely reflects it.”

Watch the full lecture here

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