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Media Literacy Fundamentals

What is Media Literacy?

Media are powerful forces in the lives of youth. Music, TV, video games, magazines and other media all have a strong influence on how we see the world, an influence that often begins in infancy. To be engaged and critical media consumers, kids need to develop skills and habits of media literacy. These skills include being able to access media on a basic level, to analyze it in a critical way based on certain key concepts, to evaluate it based on that analysis and, finally, to produce media oneself. This process of learning media literacy skills is media education.


What is Media Education?

Media education is the process through which individuals become media literate – able to critically understand the nature, techniques and impacts of media messages and productions.

Media education acknowledges and builds on the positive, creative and pleasurable dimensions of popular culture. It incorporates production of media texts and critical thinking about media to help us navigate through an increasingly complex media landscape. That landscape includes not only traditional and digital media, but also popular culture texts such as toys, fads, fashion, shopping malls and theme parks. Teachers don’t have to be media experts to incorporate media education in the classroom, because it is all about asking questions.

For example:

  • Who is the audience of a media production and why? From whose perspective is a story being told?

  • How do the unique elements and codes of a specific genre affect what we see, hear or read?

  • How might different audiences interpret the same media production? Because media issues are complex and often contradictory, the educator’s role isn’t to impart knowledge, but to facilitate the process of inquiry.

Today, the chief challenges are to locate and evaluate the right information for one’s needs and to synthesize what one finds into useful knowledge or communication. Media literacy – with critical thinking, reflection and ethical behaviour at its core – is a key part of what it means to be educated in today’s world.

Why Teach Media Literacy?


Why teach media literacy? Here are ten good reasons:

  1. Media literacy encourages young people to question, evaluate, understand and appreciate their multimedia culture. It teaches them to become active, engaged media consumers and users.

  2. The media – music, comics, television, video games, the Internet and even ads – are a part of life that everyone enjoys. Media create a shared environment and are, therefore, catalysts for learning.

  3. Media education encourages young people to use multimedia tools creatively, a strategy that contributes to “understanding by doing” and prepares them for a workforce that increasingly demands the use of sophisticated forms of communication.

  4. In a society concerned about growing youth apathy to the political process, media education engages young people in “real-world” issues. It helps young people to see themselves as active citizens and potential contributors to public debate.

  5. In a diverse and pluralistic society, the study of media helps youth understand how media portrayals can influence how we view different groups in society: it deepens young people’s understanding of diversity, identity and difference.

  6. Media literacy helps young people’s personal growth and social development by exploring the connections between popular culture – music, fashion, television programming, movies and advertising – and their attitudes, lifestyle choices and self-image.

  7. Media literacy helps children critique media representation, teaching them to distinguish between reality and fantasy as they compare media violence and real-life violence, media heroes and real-life heroes, and media role models and real-life roles and expectations.


Key Concepts for Media Literacy


Media educators base their teaching on key concepts for media literacy, which provide an effective foundation for examining mass media and popular culture. These key concepts act as filters that any media text has to go through in order for us to critically respond. 

1. Media are constructions

Media products are created by individuals who make conscious and unconscious choices about what to include, what to leave out and how to present what is included. These decisions are based on the creators’ own point of view, which will have been shaped by their opinions, assumptions and biases – as well as media they have been exposed to. As a result of this, media products are never entirely accurate reflections of the real world – even the most objective documentary filmmaker has to decide what footage to use and what to cut, as well as where to put the camera – but we instinctively view many media products as direct representations of what is real.


  • Who created this media product?

  • What is its purpose?

  • What assumptions or beliefs do its creators have that are reflected in the content?

2. Audiences negotiate meaning

The meaning of any media product is not created solely by its producers but is, instead, a collaboration between them and the audience – which means that different audiences can take away different meanings from the same product. Media literacy encourages us to understand how individual factors, such as age, gender, race and social status affect our interpretations of media.


  • How might different people see this media product differently?

  • How does this make you feel, based on how similar or different you are from the people portrayed in the media product?

3. Media have commercial implications

Most media production is a business and must, therefore, make a profit. In addition, media industries belong to a powerful network of corporations that exert influence on content and distribution. Questions of ownership and control are central – a relatively small number of individuals control what we watch, read and hear in the media. Even in cases where media content is not made for profit – such as YouTube videos and Facebook posts – the ways in which content is distributed are nearly always run with profit in mind.


  • What is the commercial purpose of this media product (in other words, how will it help someone make money)?

  • How does this influence the content and how it’s communicated?

  • If no commercial purpose can be found, what other purposes might the media product have (for instance, to get attention for its creator or to convince audiences of a particular point of view).

  • How do those purposes influence the content and how it’s communicated?

4. Media have social and political implications

Media convey ideological messages about values, power and authority. In media literacy, what or who is absent may be more important than what or who is included. These messages may be the result of conscious decisions, but more often they are the result of unconscious biases and unquestioned assumptions – and they can have a significant influence on what we think and believe.

As a result, media have great influence on politics and on forming social change. TV news coverage and advertising can greatly influence the election of a national leader on the basis of image; representations of world issues, both in journalism and fiction, can affect how much attention they receive; and society’s views towards different groups can be directly influenced by how – and how often – they appear in media.


  • Who and what is shown in a positive light? In a negative light?

  • Why might these people and things be shown this way?

  • Who and what is not shown at all?

  • What conclusions might audiences draw based on these facts?

5. Each medium has a unique aesthetic form

The content of media depends in part on the nature of the medium. This includes the technical, commercial and storytelling demands of each medium: for instance, the interactive nature of video games leads to different forms of storytelling – and different demands on media creators – that are found in film and TV.


  • What techniques does the media product use to get your attention and to communicate its message?

  • In what ways are the images in the media product manipulated through various techniques (for example: lighting, makeup, camera angle, photo manipulation)?

  • What are the expectations of the genre (for example: print advertising, TV drama, music video) towards its subject?


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