This page was originally authored by Jordan Drebot (2008). This page has been revised by Massimo Rocchetta (2009). This page was revised by Andrew Lemon (2011). This page was revised by Lorn Kennedy (2015).
Media literacy is an educational concept that expands the traditional text-based definition of literacy to include competency in “reading” and “writing” across a variety of media, most often focusing on visual or multi-modal media such as TV and the Internet.
According to experts in the field, media literacy has multiple definitions. The most common focus of media literacy is on the critical “reading” or analysis of the various images and messages of the mass media. One area where the definitions diverge is students’ use of the tools and language(s) of media to create their own messages. While the Center for Media Literacy (2008) presents the skills of consumption and production as necessary, related flipsides of the literacy process, researchers such as Quin (2003) and Torres and Mercado (2006) focus on the inequality between producers and consumers of mass media, presenting consumption and production as completely different (and therefore incomparable) processes. The writing of Aufderheide (1997) and Quin (2003) provides a more detailed overview of the range of possible definitions of media literacy.
Other researchers, however, reject this kind of singular, categorical definition altogether. Gee (2003) uses the wider category of “visual literacy” to encapsulate various kinds of media/mass-media consumption related skills. In his book entitled Media Literacy, Potter (1998) suggests that much like traditional print literacy, media literacy exists on a continuum and can be further divided into a range of related skills, (e.g. aesthetic and moral literacies).
There are certain core assumptions that underlie the various definitions of media literacy:
- All media messages are constructed by someone, for some purpose (often for the material or political benefit of the speaker).
- These messages must be viewed critically in order to understand the depth of meaning they contain and to avoid manipulation.
- This is an essential skill, and one that should be a part of students' education, just as print literacy is.
Why is Media Literacy Necessary?
- Media literacy allows one the ability to access, evaluate, create, and disseminate media. The analysis and production of media messages parallels reading and writing in traditional print literacy.
- We are constantly bombarded by a large (and growing) number of media messages. Filtering, evaluating, and understanding these messages is becoming increasingly difficult. Potter (1998) notes that even though digital technology gives us a large degree of control over the information we receive, people often lack the know-how or motivation to exercise control, and so let these choices be made for them.
- The distinction between commercial messages and entertainment, often easily definable in media such as radio or television, is disappearing in the context of the Internet (Quin, 2003). This further complicates the idea of individual choice in selecting the information one is exposed to.
- The mass media is owned by a small (and decreasing) number of companies, so the information we are exposed to tends to espouse a particular world view – one that reflects the ideals and interests of the owners of these companies. In this way, the rich and powerful use the media as a kind of soft social control to protect their own assets and power. Torres and Mercado (2006) provide specific examples of this as it relates to American media, political and corporate interests, and the education system. Noam Chomsky has also written and spoken extensively on the topic, most famously in the 1992 documentary, Manufacturing Consent.
- The ability to communicate and create messages across a variety of media (beyond text) will be necessary for individuals to participate economically and culturally in a modern “information society”. Thus, educators have a responsibility to help cultivate these skills in students in order to properly prepare them for the future.
- Media literacy is a necessary element of responsible, active citizenship in a democracy. This view places value on both the critical consumption of media and on its production as well, as a way of individual expression and socio-political participation. On the European Commission website it is stated that, “Media education is part of the basic entitlement of every citizen, in every country in the world, to freedom of expression and the right to information and it is instrumental in building and sustaining democracy.” (EC, 2000)
Media Literacy in the Classroom
Considering the many ways in which media literacy skills are important to an individual’s successful functioning in society – and that they are likely to become more important in the future – media literacy should be a consistent part of students’ formal education. Some schools or educational districts have already developed curricula in this area, as "media literacy has officially been endorsed as a key component of the core curriculum in all Canadian provinces" (MAN, 2010). Previously, the responsibility fell on individual educators to introduce activities promoting the development of these skills into the classroom.
5 key questions have been identified when teaching media literacy:
- 1) Who created this message?
- 2) What techniques are used to attract and hold the viewer's attention?
- 3) How might this message be interpreted by different people?
- 4) What values, lifestyles, and points of view are represented or omitted in this message?
- 5) Why was this message sent?
"The Medium is the Message" a stop motion animation of the five key questions.
There are also 8 media concepts that are integral to media literacy:
- 1) All media are constructions.
- 2) The media construct versions of reality.
- 3) Audiences negotiate meaning in media.
- 4) Media have commercial implications.
- 5) Media contain ideological and value messages.
- 6) Media have social and political implications.
- 7) Form and content are closely related in the media.
- 8) Each medium has a unique aesthetic form.
(Di Croce,2009, p.5)
Short video created on an iphone about Media Literacy by Kassan Borthwick
Longer video on Media Literacy by Michael Cebuliak
While there is no “correct way” to teach media literacy, a good place to start is to give students the opportunity to practice critical viewing skills. Materials should not be a problem, as we are surrounded by media messages every day. Essentially, any activity that encourages students to think and ask questions – to talk back to media – is a good start.
Here are a few screenings which may be used in the classroom to encourage discussion about media literacy:
Dove Evolution  Starbucks Vote Commercial  'Don't Vote' celebrity campaign 
For specific examples, lesson ideas, and related resources, please refer to the Appendix of this article.
Important Contributors to Media Literacy
• Marshall McLuhan
Marshall McLuhan was a Canadian philosopher and educator and one of the earliest pioneers of the media literacy movement. Some of his more well-known works include The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man (1951), The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (1962), and Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964). One of McLuhan’s most enduring legacies is his Tetrad of media effects, in which the effects of technology on society are examined simultaneously.
• Neil Postman
Neil Postman was an American author who created a program on media ecology at New York University. Postman is most well-known for his book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (1985). In his book, Postman posits that television has caused society to cast aside serious issues in favour of entertainment. Postman believed that educating students about the history, effects on society, and biases present in technology was important so that they could avoid being “used” by technology and instead become users of technology.
• Noam Chomsky
Noam Chomsky is an American linguist and professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Although known more for his work on language acquisition and political views, Chomsky has provided some insightful contributions to the field of media literacy. Chomsky believes that the mass media is designed to support business and government interests rather than provide meaningful information to the general public. He argues that the news provided by the mass media must go through five “filters” that serve to modify content. The five filters are ownership (who owns the company that is publishing the story?), funding (who is providing the money for these “news” companies?), bias (whose side is being told?), flak (which groups are accusing the media of bias?), and norms (the beliefs shared by journalists) (Wikipedia, 2011).
• Renee Hobbs
Renee Hobbs is an American scholar and professor of Communications at Temple University. She is at the forefront of media literacy education, and has created or contributed to several media literacy projects, including the Media Education Lab, the Journal of Media Literacy Education, and the documentary Tuning in to Media: Literacy for the Information Age. Hobbs has created Assignment: Media Literacy, a media literacy curriculum for grades K-12, as well as developing Digital and Media Literacy: A Plan of Action, a paper that outlines 10 steps necessary in providing media literacy to the American populace. Hobbs also authored The Seven Great Debates in the Media Literacy Movement, a paper that examines the goals of media literacy educators and attempts to form a consensus on what the future of media literacy education should look like.
• David Gauntlett
David Gauntlett is a British sociologist and professor of Media and Communications at the University of Westminster. He focuses on the creation and distribution of media (particularly digital media) as well as new methods of research, where participants make something and then reflect upon it. Gauntlett believes that the role of creator and consumer are blending together in the web 2.0 environment, and argues that new methods of research are needed in order to study the effect this has on media studies (Theory.org, 2011). He has written several books on media literacy and the effects of media on children, including Moving Experiences: Understanding Television’s Influences and Effects (1995), Video Critical: Children, the Environment, and Media Power (1997), and Creative Explorations: New Approaches to Identities and Audiences (2007).
Aufderheide, P. (1997). Media Literacy: From a report of the national leadership conference on media literacy. In R. Kubey, Media Literacy in the information age (pp. 79-86). New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction. Retrieved February 17, 2008, from http://books.google.com/books?printsec=frontcover&dq=media+literacy&lr=&id=4H1x2xYvQ-MC#PPA79,M1
Di Croce, D. (2009). Media Literacy: Teacher Resource Guide. Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved February 10, 2011 from http://www.cbclearning.ca/resources/medialiteracyguide.pdf
European Commission. (2000). Media Literacy. Retrieved February 28, 2008 from http://ec.europa.eu/avpolicy/media_literacy/index_en.htm#what
Gee, J. P. (2003). Semiotic Domains: Is Playing Video Games a “Waste of Time”?. From What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Media Awareness Network. (2010). Media Literacy Key Concepts. Retrieved February 20, 2011 from http://www.media-awareness.ca/english/teachers/media_literacy/key_concept.cfm
Potter, W. J. (1998). Media literacy. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications. Retrieved February 19, 2008, from http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=TmUrgu561K8C&oi=fnd&pg=PR7&dq=media+literacy&ots=99gxif4mkZ&sig=4tqbe3zbx3teOnovgXXsLK4Q394#PPA2,M1
Quin, Robyn (2003) Media Literacy in the Information Age. In Joan Livermore (Ed) More Than Words Can Say, A View of Literacy through the Arts. Canberra: NAAE
The Centre for Media Literacy. (2008). Retrieved February 17, 2008, from http://www.medialit.org/
Theory.org. 2011. Retrieved February 23, 2011, from http://theory.org.uk/david/index.htm
Torres, M., & Mercado, M. (2006, January 1). The Need for Critical Media Literacy in Teacher Education Core Curricula. Educational Studies: Journal of the American Educational Studies Association, 39(3), 260. Retrieved February 27, 2008, from ERIC database.
Wikipedia. (2011). Noam Chomsky. Retrieved February 18, 2011 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Noam_Chomsky
Appendix: Media Literacy Resources for Educators
- The Centre for Media Literacy: http://www.medialit.org/
+Supporting both child and adult learners to develop “the ability to communicate competently in all media forms, print and electronic, as well as to access, understand, analyze and evaluate the powerful images, words and sounds that make up our contemporary mass media culture.” +Active in developing resources for use in classrooms and other educational settings, such as the CML MediaLit Kit.
- UNESCO Media Education Programme:
+This site “aims to promote young people's access to the media, while also developing their critical appreciation of its activities.”
- Landscapes of Capital site: http://it.stlawu.edu/~global/
+"Drawing on a set of over 800 TV commercials sponsored by corporate firms from 1996 to the present, we try to map conceptually the landscapes of Capital, Technology and Globalization as seen in corporate television ads.”
- CBC's Age of Persuasion: http://www.cbc.ca/ageofpersuasion/
+Canada’s CBC Radio presents an in-depth look at the world of advertising.
- Adbusters: http://www.adbusters.org/home/
+An anti-corporate, pro-roots-culture organization that challenges the mass media through clever spoof ads and “guerilla media” tactics. They also have their own media literacy kit: http://www.adbusters.org/cultureshop/mediakit
- Media Awareness Network: http://www.media-awareness.ca/english/index.cfm
+A Canadian non-profit organization that promotes digital and media literacy. A good resource for educational games, research, and news on digital/media literacy.
- The Journal of Media Literacy Education: http://jmle.org/index.php/JMLE/index
+An online journal dedicated to the development of media literacy education. Includes articles on the latest resaerch into media literacy.
- The Association for Media Literacy: http://www.aml.ca/home/
+A site dedicated to media education, understanding the influence of the media, and the impact of technology on culture. Provides resources for educators and information on media literacy events and conferences.
- Media Education Lab: http://mediaeducationlab.com/
+A site hosted by Temple University with 5 areas of specialization in media literacy: Research and Scholarship, Teacher Education and Staff Development, Curriculum Development, Advocacy, and Youth and Community Media Production. Provides teaching resources and research on media literacy as well as information on media literacy events and conferences. The Media Education Lab also has a YouTube channel.
- Don't Buy It: http://pbskids.org/dontbuyit/
+A site dedicated to educating younger students (K-7) about media literacy. Features interactive games and quizzes, secrets of online advertising, and various downloads (wallpapers, screen savers, etc.)
- PBS Teachers: http://www.pbs.org/teachers/
+Provides ideas for integrating media literacy across the curriculum (Language Arts, Science, Social Studies, etc.)