7 Media Literacy

Learning Objectives

  1. Define media literacy, and explain why it is relevant to today’s world.
  2. Discuss the role of individual responsibility and accountability when responding to pop culture.
  3. List the five key questions that can be asked 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 with others, and make informed decisions in many spheres of life. Because of this, the reasoning went, literate people made better citizens, parents, and workers. In the 20th century, as literacy rates grew around the globe, there was a new sense that merely being able to read and write was not enough. In a world dominated by media, individuals needed to be able to understand, sort through and analyze the information they were bombarded with every day. In the second half of the 20th century, a name was finally put to this skill of being able to decode and process the messages and symbols transmitted via media: media literacy

According to the nonprofit National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE), a person who is media literate is able to access, analyze, evaluate, and communicate information. 

Why Be Media Literate?

John Culkin, a pioneering advocate for media literacy education, called the pervasiveness of media “the unnoticed fact of our present,” noting that media information is as omnipresent and easy to overlook as the air we breathe (and, he noted, “some would add that it is just as polluted”). [1] Our exposure to media starts early—a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 68 percent of children aged two and younger spend an average of two hours in front of a screen (either computer or television) each day, while children under six spend as much time in front of a screen as they do playing outside. 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, Americans of all ages get much of their information from various media sources. One crucial role of media literacy education is to enable all of 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, also known as advertising. Advertising often uses techniques of psychological pressure to influence decision making. Ads might appeal to vanity, insecurity, prejudice, fear, or the desire for adventure. This is not always a negative thing—antismoking public service announcements may rely on disgusting images of blackened lungs to shock viewers. Nonetheless, media literacy attempts to teach people to be informed and guarded consumers, and to evaluate claims with a critical eye. Do “four out of five doctors” really endorse the product?

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 she has their best interests at heart. An ostensibly objective journalist may allow his or her own political leanings to subtly slant articles. Magazine writers might avoid criticizing companies that advertise heavily in their pages. Broadcast news reporters may sensationalize stories in order to boost ratings—and advertising rates.

An important part of media literacy is remembering that mass communication messages are created by individuals, each with a set of values, assumptions, and priorities. Accepting media messages at face value could lead to head-spinning confusion, thanks to all the contradictory information that’s out there. Media literacy attempts to give people the skills to look critically at media messages—to sift through various claims, and to make sense of the often-conflicting information we face every day.

The Center for Media Literacy’s Five Core Concepts

  1. All media messages are constructed.
  2. Media messages are constructed using a creative language with its own rules.
  3. Different people experience the same media message differently.
  4. Media have embedded values and points of view.
  5. Most media messages are organized to gain profit and/or power.

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. In today’s world, however, vast amounts of information are available at the click of a mouse. Changes in technology necessitate changes in how we learn, noted communication scholar David Berlo said, and these days “education needs to be geared toward the handling of data rather than the accumulation of data.” [2] Media literacy teaches today’s students how to sort through the Internet’s cloud of data, ferret out reliable sources, and be aware of bias and unreliable sources.

Individual Accountability and Popular Culture

Ultimately, media literacy teaches that messages and images are constructed with various aims in mind and that each individual has the responsibility to evaluate and interpret these media messages. Mass communication may be created and disseminated by individuals, businesses, governments, or organizations, but they are always received by an individual, even if that individual is sitting in a crowded theater. Education, life experience, and a host of other factors allow each person to interpret constructed media in different ways; there is no “right answer,” or one way to read the media. But media literacy skills help us to function better in our media-rich environment, enabling us to be better democratic citizens, smarter shoppers, and more skeptical media consumers. As a means to this end, NAMLE has come up with a list of five questions to ask when analyzing media messages:

  1. Who created this message?
  2. What creative techniques are used to attract my attention?
  3. How might different people understand this message differently?
  4. What values, lifestyles, and points of view are represented in, or omitted from, this message?
  5. Why is this message being sent? [3]

With these questions as a starting point, we can ensure that we’re staying informed about where our information comes from, and why—important steps in any media literacy education.


Key Takeaways

  • Media literacy, or the ability to decode and process media messages, is especially key 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 out 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.
  • The following are NAMLE’s five questions that can be asked about any media message:

    1. Who created this message?
    2. What creative techniques are used to attract my attention?
    3. How might different people understand this message differently?
    4. What values, lifestyles, and points of view a


re represented in, or omitted from, this message?

    1. Why is this message being sent?

[1] Kate Moody, “John Culkin, SJ: The Man Who Invented Media Literacy: 1928–1993,” Center for Media Literacy, (accessed July 11, 2023). 

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

[3] Center for Media Literacy, MediaLitKit, (accessed July 11, 2023).

This chapter is adapted from Chapter 1 of Understanding Media and Culture: An Introduction to Mass Communication by The Saylor Foundation.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Media and Cultural Studies Copyright © by Cathie LeBlanc is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book