Media Literacy

Pattern number within this pattern set: 
Mark Lipton

Bias free media may be impossible. For that reason people need to be able to identify and assess media bias. Some have argued that media has become so vivid, so ‘real’ that people can ‘live’ in them. Media literacy is the process of decoding and making sense of all media. It allows us to critically view media and to evaluate the role that media play in our lives. When someone is media literate, he or she has the skills to identify the ideological implications and manipulative means of media systems and practices. Unfortunately, exposure to media does not necessarily suggest that people have the critical skills to understand how media systems work or how they are relating to media messages. Further, there is very little training in media education. In most places in the world, public education resists the changing media environments. Also, teachers are not given specific instruction in the workings of media, nor are they trained in the methods of media practices. Of course, it must be mentioned that in some places in the world, media has a foothold in the curriculum of public education but rarely does this curriculum come with the pedagogical training educators need to reach their audiences. The study of media has developed into complex systems of understanding, analysis, and synthesis. Yet, media study is not thought of within the context of traditional academic ‘disciplines.’ As a result, we live in a world where ubiquitous media messages, without critical appraisal impact our world.


Masterman, in particular, stresses the student's development of "critical autonomy" as a primary objective of media education. In Teaching the Media, he argues that the key task of media teachers is to "develop in pupils enough self-confidence and critical maturity to be able to apply critical judgments to media texts which they will encounter in the future" (24). Thus, the primary objective of media education is not simply to foster critical awareness and understanding, but to develop a student's awareness of his or her role as an active agent when engaged by all media, no matter the context. The "critical autonomy" approach to media education differs from its predecessors in three ways. First, the pedagogical practices of this approach stress investigative strategies; that is, teaching and learning are emphatically student centered and inquiry oriented. Second, the process of making meaning through critical investigation is emphasized; that is, strategies of decoding are stressed within pedagogy. And third, visual literacy and media literacy, rather than an exclusively "print-oriented" literacy, function as the criteria for evaluation of student work.


Until very recently if somebody complained about the media, the typical response was to "turn off the TV." Suddenly it has become commonplace to think of media not as an autonomous system but as an important element in a cultural environment that, like the physical environment, needs to be monitored for degradation and corruption. We need to be able to recognize biases and other problems that we encounter with existing media systems. All messages are made with some sense of the people receiving them. People filter these messages based on their beliefs, values, attitudes, behaviors, and past experiences. Every media message is communicated for a reason — to entertain, to inform, and usually to persuade. Behind every message is a purpose and point of view. The advertiser’s purpose is more direct than a program producer’s, though both may seek to entertain. Understanding their purposes and knowing whose point of view is being expressed and why is crucial to being media literate. Yet the basic motive behind most media programs is profit through practices like the sale of advertising space and sponsorships. These reasons are also important to consider because all media messages are owned. They are designed to yield results, provide profits, and pay for themselves. All news and entertainment programming, including film and television, try to increase their audiences to attract advertising dollars. Understanding the profit motive is key to analyzing media messages. Messages are communicated through the use of elements like sound, video, text, and photography. But most messages are enhanced by the use of visual and technical elements– through camera angles, special effects, editing, or music. Analyzing how these features are used in any given message is critical to understanding how that message attempts to persuade, entertain, or inform. Because messages are limited in both time and purpose, rarely are all the details provided. Identifying the issues, topics, and perspectives that are not included can often reveal a great deal about the purposes of media messages. Because media messages tell only part of the story and different media have unique production features, it helps to evaluate multiple messages on the same issue. This allows you to identify multiple points of view, some of which may be missing in any single message or medium.

These are but some of the issues to be discussed when considering the problems and challenges associated with the term media literacy. Other approaches include concerns about monitoring ownership and the political economy of these systems in the global economy, about interpretation, evaluation and critique of media messages, about knowledge of how media impact and influence, and about how to address the changing needs of a world where media constantly evolves.

A critical autonomy approach to media education addresses these concerns within an educational context. As part of the school reform movement of the past decade, media education scholarship assumes a student centered pedagogical practice in which the student is viewed as an active, aware participant in learning, a lifelong learner, and a self-motivated and self-directed problem solver. This image of the learner is an essential consideration not only in the design of media education, but also within the larger pedagogical frame in which the curriculum is negotiated. According to Boomer (1992), negotiating the curriculum means deliberately planning to invite students to contribute to, and to modify, the educational program, so that they will have a real investment both in the learning journey and in the outcomes. Negotiation also means making explicit, and then confronting, the constraints of the learning context and the non-negotiable requirements that apply. (14) Masterman argues further that "if students are to understand media texts . . . then it will obviously be helpful if they have first-hand experience of the construction process from the inside" (26). To this end, media education includes media production, what Masterman dubs "practical work," as a pedagogical practice which enables students to create media products. Thus, students are actively engaged both with the production of media and the workings of the classroom.

As a result of their interest in student centered learning, scholars of media education aim to develop curricula which consider the forms and practices of education and of pedagogy. Curricula which are inquiry oriented tend to offer activities which stress critical strategies, and pedagogy centers around the creation of a dialogue -- i.e., not just discussion, but the kind of talk that leads to dialectical thinking. In this context, divergent readings of texts are positively valued for their potential to stimulate further analysis and thus growth in understanding. The aim of media education is to encouraged a heightened self-consciousness about the processes of interpretation and meaning making and provide people with an opportunity to recognize that everyone uses a selective and interpretive process to examine media texts. This process and the meanings obtained depend on psychological, social, cultural, and environmental factors. In this view, then, media education strives to enable people to understand how media texts come to have a range of meanings or readings ascribed to them, and to develop even richer, more critical readings.

Contemporary media educators are also beginning to challenge traditional notions of literacy. Literacy, by definition, refers to the ability to read and write. But scholars insist that there are "languages" other than print, such as those related to the mass media, which also need to be considered within the definition of "literacy." Visual literacy, for example, has been described by Messaris (1994) as "greater experience in the workings of visual media coupled with a heightened conscious awareness of those workings" (2). And Masterman has argued that since both print and visual literacy involve "the deconstruction of texts by breaking through their surface to reveal the rhetorical techniques through which meanings are produced" (127), any education for "literacy" should focus on that process, rather than on the symbolic form of a particular set of "texts."


Education and educational practices need to shift to address the changing media environments. We need to perform more public media criticism. We need to engage with media more closely to keep them in check and to be informed as to how we are responding and why. We need to be more serious about our media environments and foster greater awareness of the impact and influence media systems have on daily life. We must arm all people with the knowledge, skills, and values a media education program provides – granting people access to new technology and information about its workings and ideological implication. Finally, we need more alternative communication systems to counter these problems.

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