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What is Media Literacy, Anyway?

To commemorate U.S. National Media Literacy Week (October 26-30, 2020) I offer this excerpt from my recently released book Navigating Media Literacy: A Pedagogical Tour Through Disneyland (Meyers Ed Press, 2020).

Media literacy has evolved to mean different things to different people. In its simplest form, it is a critical habit of mind or a way of approaching any mediated experience to discern how it shapes human understanding. A media literate person is continually seeking to answer the basic question “How do I know what I know?” Answering this question requires the ability to access information, analyze messages in a variety of forms, evaluate the quality and credibility of message content, create content in a variety of forms, reflect on one’s own conduct and communication, and take social action by using media to share knowledge and solve problems (Hobbs, 2010). 

There are essentially five key principles that a media-literate individual understands and applies to any informational context and content: 

1. Media are constructions that are historically situated (meaning requires context). 

2. Humans actively interpret media (they are not passive audiences but active users). 

3. Media adhere to linguistic codes and conventions (they have formulaic rules that activate meaning). 

4. Media are owned for particular purposes and authored with particular points of view (ownership and authorship impact each other and both shape the motivation and meaning of media messages). 

5. Media are representations of reality (they are not windows to reality). 

Media literacy has roots in the fields of critical media studies and media criticism, both of which are concerned with representational meaning and the effects of message content on audiences or users. Critical media literacy is concerned with the power structures and relations among media, audiences, and information (Kellner & Share, 2007). These well-established fields of study place considerable emphasis on the effects of media, usually emphasizing the potentially negative impact. Media-literate individuals do more than critique media messages, however. They are also obliged to create media and take action. Although there is much to learn about and from media across these areas of study, criticizing media without creating or producing media is only half the media literacy equation. 

As a university professor, I began my career within a college of education and human services. I now reside within a college of the arts. That shift was purposeful and significant, for it is at the intersection of education and art that I propose creative media production as more than an artistic or vocational endeavor. Communication and media arts are disciplines foundational to becoming media literate. Therefore, I want my students to master the technical elements of production yet also move beyond them to think of forms of media as ways of seeing and understanding the world. Media technologies may directly impact human understanding and behavior, but humans have agency to ultimately decide the extent to which they hold significance in our lives. At the same time, humans as a collective must create social, economic, and political structures that are conducive to exercising that individual agency. 

Meaning does not reside exclusively within a medium or text. Neither does it reside entirely with the user. Meaning lies at the interface of the two (Blumer, 1969). Media-literate individuals interrogate the stories in which they are immersed and seek to understand who is telling the story, the way in which the story is told, whose story is being told, and whose story is left out. The result of such investigation cannot be presupposed. By-products of media literacy may include celebrating, resisting, consuming, and/or creating—depending on the context and circumstance. Deconstruction and reconstruction of meaning are together a complex and careful dance that yields societal value far beyond that of criticism for the sake of criticism. 

Media literacy is not based on the assumption that media are inherently harmful or that people require protection or inoculation. Media literacy is the antithesis of censorship (Heins & Cho, 2003). The freedom and capacity to civilly dissent, to critique, and to create are integral to education within a social and political democracy. One of the aims of media literacy is to expand an individual’s capacity to simultaneously empower and protect themselves and their communities (Knight Commission, 2009). Because media literacy is both agency oriented and action oriented, it can sometimes have political consequences, yet media literacy is not a political movement. Neither does media literacy focus on media reform. However, one of the outcomes of becoming media literate may be to change media industry standards and practices (National Association for Media Literacy Education, 2007). After all, a democratic society demands social, political, and economic structures that support, rather than inhibit, individual agency.

Media literacy is a continuous philosophical and practical journey on which some travel faster than others. It is not a set of competencies that one possesses or not. We can see that many humans are heavy social media users but not media literate or even socially adept. Media literacy requires that we know about ourselves, about others, and about the worlds in which we live. Yet technical fluency is more easily achieved than ethical decision-making skills or even the ability to civilly dissent. Where can such learning occur given that educators lack the time and curricular space for students to engage in this reflective process? 

Herein lies the need for media literacy education. 


It is one thing to become a media-literate individual. It is an entirely separate challenge to teach others how to be media literate—and to do so within the constraints of formalized higher education. At its core, media literacy education is a pedagogy of inquiry that requires educators to intentionally and systematically activate the intellectual and moral agency within their students. The focus of media literacy education is learning to ask and answer authentic questions, not convincing students what they think is true or false about media. Authentic media literacy education requires scaffolding student learning to enable students to formulate their own questions and then students answering those questions for themselves through the use of evidence, data, logic, and moral decision-making skills. It hinges on educators fundamentally believing that students are capable of acting and thinking for themselves. In short, media literacy education is a universal method for teaching students how to think and not what to think. 

Media literacy education requires more than teaching about media content or production. It requires teaching through and across oral, print, electronic, and digital media platforms. Media literacy education is recursive by design and requires the learner to access, analyze, evaluate, create, reflect, and act (Hobbs, 2010) and then continuously repeat the cycle. Whether an individual is consuming, producing, or sharing information, media literacy requires transmedia navigation, or the ability to follow the flow of information and stories across multiple media forms (Scolari et al., 2018, p. 805). In other words, media literacy education requires teachers to be knowledgeable in curriculum and proficient with technology (Domine, 2011). 

Media literacy education is not the delivery of a formalized curriculum with predefined answers. Such practice is indoctrination and hinders learning by supplanting one ideology for another. The inherent challenge is that the traditional purpose of schooling in the United States is not to teach students how to think but to teach students how to follow. Public schools in the United States are structurally disconnected from the media consumption, curation, creation, circulation, and collaboration that organically occur outside classrooms (Jenkins et al., 2016). Theoretically, media literacy education bridges the gap between schooling and learning through democratic pedagogical practices (Domine, 2011). This is no simple task. When done properly, media literacy education is difficult and even borderline transgressive. 


Blumer, H. (1969). Symbolic interactionism: Perspective and method. Prentice-Hall. 

Domine, V. (2011). The coming of age of media literacy. Journal of Media Literacy Education, 3(1), 8–10. 

Heins, M., & Cho, C. (2003). Media literacy: An alternative to censorship. Free Expression Policy Project. lookupid?key=olbp65149 

Hobbs, R. (2010). Digital media literacy: A plan of action. The Aspen Institute. 

Jenkins, H., Ito, M., & Boyd, D. (2016). Participatory culture in a networked era: A conversation on youth, learning, commerce, and politics. Polity Press.

Kellner, D., & Share, J. (2007). Critical media literacy is not an option. Learning Inquiry, 1(1), 59–69. 

Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy. (2009). Informing communities: Sustaining democracy in the digital age. The Aspen Institute. 

National Association for Media Literacy Education. (2007, November). Core principles of media literacy education in the United States. 

Scolari, C. A., Masanet, M., Guerrero-Pico, M., & Establés, M. (2018). Transmedia literacy in the new media ecology: Teens’ transmedia skills and informal learning strategies. El profesional de la información, 27(4), 801–812. 

Dr. Vanessa E. Greenwood is full professor in the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University in New Jersey. She is founding director of the COMM+MEDIA Research Collaboratory.