What Is Media Literacy?

1 January 2017

What do the experts have to say about media literacy? What’s the difference between media literacy and media education? Here are a few answers. What is Media Literacy? Media literacy is the ability to sift through and analyze the messages that inform, entertain and sell to us every day. It’s the ability to bring critical thinking skills to bear on all media— from music videos and Web environments to product placement in films and virtual displays on NHL hockey boards.

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It’s about asking pertinent questions about what’s there, and noticing what’s not there. And it’s the instinct to question what lies behind media productions— the motives, the money, the values and the ownership— and to be aware of how these factors influence content. Media education encourages a probing approach to the world of media: Who is this message intended for? Who wants to reach this audience, and why? From whose perspective is this story told?

Whose voices are heard, and whose are absent? What strategies does this message use to get my attention and make me feel included? In our world of multi-tasking, commercialism, globalization and interactivity, media education isn’t about having the right answers—it’s about asking the right questions. The result is lifelong empowerment of the learner and citizen.

Media literacy is an overall term that incorporates three stages of a continuum leading to media empowerment: The first stage is simply becoming aware of the importance of managing one’s media “diet”— that is, making choices and reducing the time spent with television, videos, electronic games, films and various print media forms. The second stage is learning specific skills of critical viewing— learning to analyze and question what is in the frame, how it is constructed and what may have been left out.

Skills of critical viewing are best learned through inquiry-based classes or interactive group activities, as well as from creating and producing one’s own media messages. The third stage goes behind the frame to explore deeper issues. Who produces the media we experience—and for what purpose? Who profits? Who loses? And who decides? This stage of social, political and economic analysis looks at how everyone in society makes meaning from our media experiences, and how the mass media drive our global consumer economy.

This inquiry can sometimes set the stage for various media advocacy efforts to challenge or redress public policies or corporate practices. Although television and electronic media may seem to present the most compelling reasons for promoting media literacy education in contemporary society, the principles and practices of media literacy education are applicable to all media— from television to T-shirts, from billboards to the Internet.

Media teachers today use the terms “media education,” “media study,” and “media literacy” almost interchangeably. My personal preference is to use the term “media education” as a broad description of all that takes place in a media-oriented classroom, whether the subject matter is English, history, geography or science.

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