1.8 Media Literacy

Learning Objectives

  1. Define media literacy.
  2. Describe the role of individual responsibility and accountability when responding to pop culture.
  3. List the five key considerations about any media message.

In Gutenberg’s age and the subsequent modern era, literacy—the ability to read and write—was a concern not only of educators, but also of politicians, social reformers, and philosophers. A literate population, many reasoned, would be able to seek out information, stay informed about the news of the day, communicate effectively, and make informed decisions in many spheres of life. Because of this, literate people made better citizens, parents, and workers. Several centuries later, as global literacy rates continued to grow, there was a new sense that merely being able to read and write was not enough. In a media-saturated world, individuals needed to be able to sort through and analyze the information they were bombarded with every day. In the second half of the 20th century, the skill of being able to decode and process the messages and symbols transmitted via media was named media literacy. According to the nonprofit National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE), a person who is media literate can access, analyze, evaluate, and communicate information. Put another way by John Culkin, a pioneering advocate for media literacy education, “The new mass media—film, radio, TV—are new languages, their grammar as yet unknown (Moody, 1993).” Media literacy seeks to give media consumers the ability to understand this new language. The following are questions asked by those that are media literate:

  1. Who created the message?
  2. What are the author’s credentials?
  3. Why was the message created?
  4. Is the message trying to get me to act or think in a certain way?
  5. Is someone making money for creating this message?
  6. Who is the intended audience?
  7. How do I know this information is accurate?

Why Be Media Literate?

Culkin called the pervasiveness of media “the unnoticed fact of our present,” noting that media information was as omnipresent and easy to overlook as the air we breathe (and, he noted, “some would add that it is just as polluted”) (Moody, 1993). Our exposure to media starts early—a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 68 percent of children ages 2 and younger spend an average of 2 hours in front of a screen (either computer or television) each day, while children under 6 spend as much time in front of a screen as they do playing outside (Lewin). U.S. teenagers are spending an average of 7.5 hours with media daily, nearly as long as they spend in school. Media literacy isn’t merely a skill for young people, however. Today’s Americans get much of their information from various media sources—but not all that information is created equal. One crucial role of media literacy education is to enable us to skeptically examine the often-conflicting media messages we receive every day.


Many of the hours people spend with media are with commercial-sponsored content. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) estimated that each child aged 2 to 11 saw, on average, 25,629 television commercials in 2004 alone, or more than 10,700 minutes of ads. Each adult saw, on average, 52,469 ads, or about 15.5 days’ worth of television advertising (Holt, 2007). Children (and adults) are bombarded with contradictory messages—newspaper articles about the obesity epidemic run side by side with ads touting soda, candy, and fast food. The American Academy of Pediatrics maintains that advertising directed to children under 8 is “inherently deceptive” and exploitative because young children can’t tell the difference between programs and commercials (Shifrin, 2005). Advertising often uses techniques of psychological pressure to influence decision making. Ads may appeal to vanity, insecurity, prejudice, fear, or the desire for adventure. This is not always done to sell a product—antismoking public service announcements may rely on disgusting images of blackened lungs to shock viewers. Nonetheless, media literacy involves teaching people to be guarded consumers and to evaluate claims with a critical eye.

Bias, Spin, and Misinformation

Advertisements may have the explicit goal of selling a product or idea, but they’re not the only kind of media message with an agenda. A politician may hope to persuade potential voters that he has their best interests at heart. An ostensibly objective journalist may allow her political leanings to subtly slant her articles. Magazine writers might avoid criticizing companies that advertise heavily in their pages. News reporters may sensationalize stories to boost ratings—and advertising rates.

Mass-communication messages are created by individuals, and each individual has his or her own set of values, assumptions, and priorities. Accepting media messages at face value could lead to confusion because of all the contradictory information available. For example, in 2010, a highly contested governor’s race in New Mexico led to conflicting ads from both candidates, Diane Denish and Susana Martinez, each claiming that the other agreed to policies that benefited sex offenders. According to media watchdog site FactCheck.org, the Denish team’s ad “shows a preteen girl—seemingly about 9 years old—going down a playground slide in slow-motion, while ominous music plays in the background and an announcer discusses two sex crime cases. It ends with an empty swing, as the announcer says: ‘Today we don’t know where these sex offenders are lurking, because Susana Martinez didn’t do her job.’” The opposing ad proclaims that “a department in Denish’s cabinet gave sanctuary to criminal illegals, like child molester Juan Gonzalez (Robertson & Kiely, 2010).” Both claims are highly inflammatory, play on fear, and distort the reality behind each situation. Media literacy involves educating people to look critically at these and other media messages and to sift through various messages and make sense of the conflicting information we face every day.

New Skills for a New World

In the past, one goal of education was to provide students with the information deemed necessary to successfully engage with the world. Students memorized multiplication tables, state capitals, famous poems, and notable dates. Today, however, vast amounts of information are available at the click of a mouse. Even before the advent of the Internet, noted communications scholar David Berlo foresaw the consequences of expanding information technology: “Most of what we have called formal education has been intended to imprint on the human mind all of the information that we might need for a lifetime.” Changes in technology necessitate changes in how we learn, Berlo noted, and these days “education needs to be geared toward the handling of data rather than the accumulation of data (Shaw, 2003).”

Wikipedia, a hugely popular Internet encyclopedia, is at the forefront of the debate on the proper use of online sources. In 2007, Middlebury College banned the use of Wikipedia as a source in history papers and exams. One of the school’s librarians noted that the online encyclopedia “symbolizes the best and worst of the Internet. It’s the best because everyone gets his/her say and can state their views. It’s the worst because people who use it uncritically take for truth what is only opinion (Byers, 2007).” Or, as comedian and satirist Stephen Colbert put it, “Any user can change any entry, and if enough other users agree with them, it becomes true (Colbert, 2006).” A computer registered to the U.S. Democratic Party changed the Wikipedia page for Rush Limbaugh to proclaim that he was “racist” and a “bigot,” and a person working for the electronic voting machine manufacturer Diebold was found to have erased paragraphs connecting the company to Republican campaign funds (Fildes, 2007). Media literacy teaches today’s students how to sort through the Internet’s cloud of data, locate reliable sources, and identify bias and unreliable sources.

Individual Accountability and Popular Culture

Ultimately, media literacy involves teaching that images are constructed with various aims in mind and that it falls to the individual to evaluate and interpret these media messages. Mass communication may be created and disseminated by individuals, businesses, governments, or organizations, but it is always received by an individual. Education, life experience, and a host of other factors make each person interpret constructed media in different ways; there is no correct way to interpret a media message. But on the whole, better media literacy skills help us function better in our media-rich environment, enabling us to be better democratic citizens, smarter shoppers, and more skeptical media consumers. When analyzing media messages, consider the following:

  1. Author: Consider who is presenting the information. Is it a news organization, a corporation, or an individual? What links do they have to the information they are providing? A news station might be owned by the company it is reporting on; likewise, an individual might have financial reasons for supporting a certain message.
  2. Format: Television and print media often use images to grab people’s attention. Do the visuals only present one side of the story? Is the footage overly graphic or designed to provoke a specific reaction? Which celebrities or professionals are endorsing this message?
  3. Audience: Imagine yourself in another’s shoes. Would someone of the opposite gender feel the same way as you do about this message? How might someone of a different race or nationality feel about it? How might an older or younger person interpret this information differently? Was this message made to appeal to a specific audience?
  4. Content: Even content providers that try to present information objectively can have an unconscious slant. Analyze who is presenting this message. Does he or she have any clear political affiliations? Is he or she being paid to speak or write this information? What unconscious influences might be at work?
  5. Purpose: Nothing is communicated by mass media without a reason. What reaction is the message trying to provoke? Are you being told to feel or act a certain way? Examine the information closely and look for possible hidden agendas.

With these considerations as a jumping-off place, we can ensure that we’re staying informed about where our information comes from and why it is being sent—important steps in any media literacy education (Center for Media Literacy).

Key Takeaways

  • Media literacy, or the ability to decode and process media messages, is especially important in today’s media-saturated society. Media surrounds contemporary Americans to an unprecedented degree and from an early age. Because media messages are constructed with particular aims in mind, a media-literate individual will interpret them with a critical eye. Advertisements, bias, spin, and misinformation are all things to look for.
  • Individual responsibility is crucial for media literacy because, while media messages may be produced by individuals, companies, governments, or organizations, they are always received and decoded by individuals.
  • When analyzing media messages, consider the message’s author, format, audience, content, and purpose.


List the considerations for evaluating media messages and then search the Internet for information on a current event. Choose one blog post, news article, or video about the topic and identify the author, format, audience, content, and purpose of your chosen subject. Then, respond to the following questions. Each response should be a minimum of one paragraph.

  1. How did your impression of the information change after answering the five questions? Do you think other questions need to be asked?
  2. Is it difficult or easy to practice media literacy on the Internet? What are a few ways you can practice media literacy for television or radio shows?
  3. Do you think the public has a responsibility to be media literate? Why or why not?

End-of-Chapter Assessment

Review Questions

  1. Section 1

    1. What is the difference between mass communication and mass media?
    2. What are some ways that culture affects media?
    3. What are some ways that media affect culture?
  2. Section 2

    1. List four roles that media plays in society.
    2. Identify historical events that have shaped the adoption of various mass-communication platforms.
    3. How have technological shifts affected the media over time?
  3. Section 3

    1. What is convergence, and what are some examples of it in daily life?
    2. What were the five types of convergence identified by Jenkins?
    3. How are different kinds of convergence shaping the digital age on both an individual and a social level?
  4. Section 4

    1. How does the value of free speech affect American culture and media?
    2. What are some of the limits placed on free speech, and how do they reflect social values?
    3. What is propaganda, and how does it reflect and/or impact social values?
    4. Who are gatekeepers, and how do they influence the media landscape?
  5. Section 5

    1. What is a cultural period?
    2. How did events, technological advances, political changes, and philosophies help shape the Modern Era?
    3. What are some of the major differences between the modern and postmodern eras?
  6. Section 6

    1. What is media literacy, and why is it relevant in today’s world?
    2. What is the role of the individual in interpreting media messages?
    3. What are the five considerations for evaluating media messages?

Critical Thinking Questions

  1. What does the history of media technology have to teach us about present-day America? How might current and emerging technologies change our cultural landscape in the near future?
  2. Are gatekeepers and tastemakers necessary for mass media? How is the Internet helping us to reimagine these roles?
  3. The idea of cultural periods presumes that changes in society and technology lead to dramatic shifts in the way people see the world. How have digital technology and the Internet changed how people interact with their environment and with each other? Are we changing to a new cultural period, or is contemporary life still a continuation of the Postmodern Age?
  4. U.S. law regulates free speech through laws on obscenity, copyright infringement, and other things. Why are some forms of expression protected while others aren’t? How do you think cultural values will change U.S. media law in the near future?
  5. Does media literacy education belong in U.S. schools? Why or why not? What might a media literacy curriculum look like?

Career Connection

In a media-saturated world, companies use consultants to help analyze and manage the interaction between their organizations and the media. Independent consultants develop projects, keep abreast of media trends, and provide advice based on industry reports. Or, as writer, speaker, and media consultant Merlin Mann put it, the “primary job is to stay curious about everything, identify the points where two forces might clash, then enthusiastically share what that might mean, as well as why you might care (Mann).”

Read the blog post “So what do consultants do?” at http://www.consulting-business.com/so-what-do-consultants-do.html.

Now, explore writer and editor Merlin Mann’s website (http://www.merlinmann.com). Be sure to take a look at the “Bio” and “FAQs” sections. These two pages will help you answer the following questions:

  1. Merlin Mann provides some work for free and charges a significant amount for other projects. What are some of the indications he gives in his biography about what he values? How do you think this impacts his fees?
  2. Check out Merlin Mann’s projects. What are some of the projects Merlin is or has been involved with? Now look at the “Speaking” page. Can you see a link between his projects and his role as a prominent writer, speaker, and consultant?
  3. Check out Merlin’s FAQ section. What is his attitude about social networking sites? What about public relations? Why do you think he holds these opinions?
  4. Think about niches in the Internet industry where a consultant might be helpful. Do you have expertise, theories, or reasonable advice that might make you a useful asset for a business or organization? Find an example of an organization or group with some media presence. If you were this group’s consultant, how would you recommend they better reach their goals?


Byers, Meredith “Controversy Over Use of Wikipedia in Academic Papers Arrives at Smith,” Smith College Sophian, News section, March 8, 2007.

Center for Media Literacy, “Five Key Questions Form Foundation for Media Inquiry,” http://www.medialit.org/reading-room/five-key-questions-form-foundation-media-inquiry.

Colbert, Stephen. “The Word: Wikiality,” The Colbert Report, July 31, 2006.

Fildes, Jonathan. “Wikipedia ‘Shows CIA Page Edits,’” BBC News, Science and Technology section, August 15, 2007.

Holt, Debra. and others, Children’s Exposure to TV Advertising in 1977 and 2004, Federal Trade Commission Bureau of Economics staff report, June 1, 2007.

Lewin. “If Your Kids Are Awake.”

Mann, Merlin. http://www.merlinmann.com/projects/.

Moody, Kate. “John Culkin, SJ: The Man Who Invented Media Literacy: 1928–1993,” Center for Media Literacy, http://www.medialit.org/reading_room/article408.html.

Robertson, Lori and Eugene Kiely, “Mudslinging in New Mexico: Gubernatorial Candidates Launch Willie Horton-Style Ads, Each Accusing the Other of Enabling Sex Offenders to Strike Again,” FactCheck.org, June 24, 2010, http://factcheck.org/2010/06/mudslinging-in-new-mexico/.

Shaw, David. “A Plea for Media Literacy in our Nation’s Schools,” Los Angeles Times, November 30, 2003.

Shifrin, Donald. “Perspectives on Marketing, Self-Regulation and Childhood Obesity” (remarks, Federal Trade Commission Workshop, Washington, DC, July 14–15, 2005).


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