Media Literacy

W James Potter. 21st Century Communication: A Reference Handbook. Editor: William F Eadie. 2009. Sage Publication.

Media literacy is a popular term. If you were to do a search of the academic literature using one of the many databases available at university libraries, you would find somewhere between several hundred and several thousand citations for scholarly books and articles that use this term as a keyword. And as I write this chapter, a search for “media literacy” on Google results in more than 792,000 hits. Clearly, media literacy is a popular topic among not just scholars but among the general population, which includes parents, teachers, social activists, and policymakers.

It should not be a surprise that there are many definitions for media literacy across all this writing. In this chapter, I will first show you the range of definitions for this term and highlight the major issues that span across that great variety of definitions. Then, I will use the major ideas in those definitions to describe the characteristics that a media-literate person should exhibit.

Different Approaches

Variety of Definitions

The availability of so much information on this topic is a very positive characteristic because it indicates that the topic is an important one to so many people. There is a lot of vitality, which produces many ideas. Note the range of definitions in Table 62.1. Some of these definitions were constructed by scholars working in groups; examples include the National Communication Association and the National Leadership Conference on Media. Media groups (such as the American Psychiatric Association) and governmental groups (such as the Office of National Drug Control Policy) also have constructed definitions. Nevertheless, most of these definitions were constructed by small groups of individuals or created by citizen activist groups that challenge the mass media and criticize many of their practices and content.

Among scholars, there is also a great variety of thinking about media literacy. Some scholars argue that media literacy should be treated primarily as a public policy issue (Aufderheide, 1993); as a critical cultural issue (Alvarado & Boyd-Barrett, 1992); as a set of pedagogical tools for elementary school teachers (Houk & Bogart, 1974); as suggestions for parents (DeGaetano & Bander, 1996;); as McLuhanesque speculation (Gordon, 1971); or as a topic of scholarly inquiry from a physiological (Messaris, 1994), cognitive (Sinatra, 1986), or anthropological (Scribner & Cole, 1981) tradition. Some writers focus primarily on one culture, such as American culture (Manley-Casimir & Luke, 1987;), British culture (Buckingham, 1990; Masterman, 1985), or Chilean culture (Freire, 1985), or on several countries and/or cultures (Brown, 1991; Scheunemann, 1996). Media literacy is a term applied to the study of textual interpretation (Buckingham, 1998; Zettl, 1998), context and ideology (Lewis and Jhally, 1998), and audience (Buckingham, 1998). The term is also used as synonymous with or part of media education (Sholle & Denski, 1994). Here a sampling of some of these scholarly definitions. Again, note the range in the definitions.

  • Action Coalition for Media Education: Encourage critical thinking and free expression, examine the corporate media system, and inspire active participation in society (
  • Alliance for a Media Literate America: Critical inquiry, learning, and skill building rather than media bashing and blame (
  • American Psychiatric Association: Rather than allow the media to promote unchallenged the quick fix of violent solutions, conflict resolution skills involving patience and negotiation should be taught (
  • Center for Media Literacy: “A framework for accessing, analyzing, evaluating and creating media. The development of critical thinking and production skills needed to live fully in the 21st century media culture.” Also defined as “the ability to communicate competently in all media forms, print and electronic, as well as to access, understand, and analyze and evaluate the powerful images, words and sounds that make up our contemporary mass media culture” (
  • Children Now: Media literacy is a way to foster critical viewing skills in young viewers (
  • Citizens for Media Literacy: How to think critically about TV and advertising (
  • Coalition for Quality Children’s Media (KIDS FIRST!): Recognize programs that are intellectually and creatively stimulating; that break down racial, gender, handicapped and cultural boundaries; and that are produced with high technical and artistic standards (
  • Media Awareness Network: Critical thinking skills to “read” all the messages that are informing and entertaining and selling to them (audiences) every day (
  • Media Education Foundation: The tools and vocabulary needed to re-examine media images and their influence on how we think about our personal, political, economic, and cultural worlds (
  • Media Watch: Challenge abusive stereotypes and other biased images commonly found in the media (
  • National Communication Association: A media-literate person understands how words, images, and sounds influence the way meanings are created and shared in contemporary society in ways that are both subtle and profound. A media-literate person is equipped to assign value, worth, and meaning to media use and media messages (
  • National Leadership Conference on Media: The ability to access, analyze, evaluate, and communicate messages in a wide variety of forms of literacy (Aufderheide, 1993)
  • The National Telemedia Council: The ability to choose, to understand—within the context of content, form/style, impact, industry, and production, to question, to evaluate, to create and/or to produce, and to respond thoughtfully to the media we consume. “It is mindful viewing, reflective judgment” (Considine, 1997). Also, the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, and create information in a variety of print and nonprint media formats (
  • New Mexico Media Literacy Project: “The ability to access, analyze, evaluate and create messages in various media” (
  • Northwest Media Literacy Project: The ability to critically assess media messages to understand their impact on us, our communities, our society, and our planet. It is also a movement to raise awareness of media and their influence (
  • Office of National Drug Control Policy: “To (a) recognize how media messages influence us (e.g. develop a vocabulary to recognize manipulative techniques, develop skills to protect oneself against messages about drugs or negative lifestyle choice that are embedded in the media), to (b) develop critical thinking (e.g. know that messages are constructed by people with points of view and commercial interests, uncover value messages inherent in media, evaluate information for accuracy and reliability), to (c) foster self-esteem (e.g., creatively produce satisfying and constructive messages)”
  • Adams and Hamm (2001): “Media literacy may be thought of as the ability to create personal meaning from the visual and verbal symbols we take in every day from television, advertising, film, and digital media. It is more than inviting students to simply decode information. They must be critical thinkers who can understand and produce in the media culture swirling around them” (p. 33).
  • Anderson (1981) The “skillful collection, interpretation, testing and application of information regardless of medium or presentation for some purposeful action” (p. 22).
  • Barton and Hamilton (1998) (cited in Margaret Mackey, 2002, pp. 5-6): They define literacy as “primarily something people do; it is an activity, located in the space between thought and text. Literacy does not just reside in people’s heads as a set of skills to be learned, and it does not just reside on paper, captured as texts to be analysed. Like all human activity, literacy is essentially social, and it is located in the interaction between people” (p. 3).
  • Hobbs (2001): “Literacy is the ability to access, analyze, evaluate and communicate messages in a variety of forms” (p. 7). Hobbs says this definition suggests the following characteristics: inquiry-based education, student-centered learning, problem solving in cooperative teams, alternatives to standardized testing, and an integrated curriculum.
  • The National Leadership Conference on Media Literacy (Aufderheide, 1993, p. xx): “The ability to access, analyze, evaluate and communicate messages in a variety of forms.”
  • Sholle and Denski (1995): These authors argue that media literacy should be conceptualized within a critical pedagogy, and thus “it must be conceived as a political, social and cultural practice” (p. 17).
  • Silverblatt and Eliceiri (1997): In their Dictionary of Media Literacy They define media literacy as “a critical-thinking skill that enables audiences to decipher the information that they receive through the channels of mass communications and empowers them to develop independent judgments about media content” (p. 48).

The writing about media literacy is like a large complex patchwork of ideas. Many of these ideas are truly inspired. But it is difficult to make sense of all these ideas and to grasp the essence of what media literacy means. In characterizing this condition, Zettl (1998) complained that “the plethora of available articles, books, classroom materials, and information on the internet dealing with media literacy does not seem to help very much in answering the question, ‘What is media literacy?’” (p. 81).

Many scholars have had the same feelings as Zettl expressed about the mass of ideas concerning media literacy, and periodically groups of these people have joined efforts to struggle with crafting a definition they can all accept. For example, in 1992, U.S. scholars interested in media literacy convened the National Leadership Conference on Media Literacy and after several days of discussion agreed that literacy “is the ability to access, analyze, evaluate and communicate messages in a variety of forms” (see Table 62.2). In this chapter, I continue this effort to synthesize a definition of media literacy from all the ideas contributed in the literature thus far. This synthesis begins in the next section with a highlighting of the key issues that span these writings.

Key Issues

Given the many definitions of media literacy, it is important to find the key issues that cut across all this thinking. That is, we need to identify the major themes that emerge from all this definitional work. In this section, I highlight three of these key issues and display the range of thinking on each in the accompanying boxed text.

The first of these issues is “What are media?” When we talk about media literacy, we must clarify which media we mean. As you can see in the following, there is a wide range of perspectives. Some focus on one medium (such as television or computers), some focus on a type of medium (print or pictorial), and others are very broad and include all forms of information sharing.

The second issue is “What do we mean by literacy?” Again, there is a wide range of thinking. Some regard media literacy primarily in terms of increasing skills. Other scholars focus on building knowledge. And a third set of scholars take the perspective that media literacy requires both the development of skills and the building of knowledge.

The third issue is “What should be the purpose of media literacy?” Most writers who address this question say that the purpose is to improve the lives of individuals in some way, usually by giving them more control over how media messages will affect them. A considerable number of writers also talk about the purpose of media literacy in an educational curriculum, and some argue that media literacy has a purpose in social activism.

Which Media?

  • Print media (Scribner & Cole, 1981; Sinatra, 1986)
  • Television (Zettl, 1998)
  • Pictural media of still and moving pictures (Messaris, 1994)
  • Computers (Adams & Hamm, 2001; Gardiner, 1997)
  • Multimedia (Buckingham, 1993; Buckingham & Sefton-Green, 1997)
  • All technologies that deliver information (Adams & Hamm, 2001; Hobbs, 2001; Potter, 2008; Silverblatt, 1995)
  • All forms (even nontechnological, such as interpersonal) of communication (Johnson, 2001)

What is Literacy?

Primarily Developing Skills

  • Sholle and Denski (1995) emphasize three skills: (1) rereading media—learning how to construct different meanings when viewed in different contexts, denaturalizing the text; (2) affective reflexivity—students need to pay more attention to their own affective investment as they consume media; and (3) rewriting and the vital strategy of authorship—students need to get into the practice of creating counter-representations of the messages they see.
  • Adams and Hamm (2001) take a broad approach to defining media literacy and say that literacy is “the ability to read, write, speak, listen, think, and view” (p. vii).
  • Alvermann, Moon, and Hagood (1999) say that critical media literacy is “providing individuals access to understanding how the print and non-print texts that are part of everyday life help to construct their knowledge of the world and the various social, economic, and political positions they occupy within it” (pp. 1-2).
  • Messaris (1998) argues that “a central component of media literacy should be an understanding of the representational conventions through which the users of media create and share meanings,” especially visual representations (p. 70).
  • Silverblatt, Ferry, and Finan (1999) say there are five types of analysis of media literacy: ideological analysis, autobiographical analysis, nonverbal communication analysis, mythic analysis, and analysis of production techniques.
  • Brown (1998) says that traditionally media literacy “has involved the ability to analyze and appreciate respected works of literature, and by extension, to communicate effectively by writing well. In the past half-century it has come to include the ability to analyze competently and to utilize skillfully print journalism, cinematic productions, radio and television programming, and even computer-mediated information and exchange (including real-time interactive exploration through the global internet)” (p. 44).
  • Adams & Hamm (2001) define media literacy as “composing, comprehending, analyzing and appreciating the multiple print and nonprint symbol systems” (p. 4).
  • Mackey (2002) argues that the skills used with one medium are applicable with other media. She says, “When it comes to making meaning, strategies can be imported across media boundaries” (p. 6). So children can learn about the shaping of a story by watching television and then use this knowledge when learning to read a short story in a book. “Young people learn about text processing within the broad and complex context of a social, cultural, educational, and commercial textual ecosphere” (p. 8).

Primarily Increasing Knowledge

  • Pattison (1982) requires consciousness of the questions posed by language, regardless of the medium that transmits that language.
  • Silverblatt (1995) said that there are four keys that people need to interpret media messages. These are the understanding of the process, context, structure, and production values.
  • Masterman (2001) analyzed media literacy movement in Europe between 1970 and 1990 and says that there are eight component ideas: 1) The central and unifying concept of media education is that of representation. This means that media do not reflect reality but represent it. 2) A central purpose of media education is to “denaturalize” media. This means creating an understanding that media messages are constructions and do not occur naturally. 3) “Media education is primarily investigative. It does not seek to impose specific cultural values. It aims to increase students’ understanding of how media represent reality. Its objective is to produce well-informed citizens who can make their own judgements on the basis of the available evidence. In so far as media education deals with value judgements, it does so in the ways which encourage students to explore the range of value judgements made about a given media text and to examine the sources of such judgements (including their own) and their effects. It does not seek to impose ideas on what constitutes ‘good’ or ‘bad’ television, newspapers, or films” (p. 41). 4) Media education is organized around key concepts, which are analytical tools rather than an alternative content. They do not seek to replace “bad” content with “better” content. 5) Media education is a lifelong process. 6) Media education aims to foster not simply critical understanding but critical autonomy. 7) The effectiveness of media education may be evaluated by two principal criteria: (a) the ability of students to apply what they know (their critical ideas and principles) to new situations and (b) the amount of commitment, interest, and motivation displayed by students. 8) Media education is topical and opportunistic. It seeks to illuminate the life situations for learners by harnessing the interest and enthusiasm generated by media’s coverage of topical events.
  • Messaris (1998) says, “Media literacy can be defined as knowledge about how the mass media function in society…. Ideally, this knowledge should encompass all aspects of the workings of media: their economic foundations, organizational structures, psychological effects, social consequences, and, above all, their ‘language,’ that is the representational conventions and rhetorical strategies of ads, TV programs, movies, and other forms of mass media content” (p. 70).
  • Meyrowitz (1998) argues that there are multiple literacies, so people need a range of knowledge that includes an understanding of media content (understanding of the conduits that hold and send messages), of media grammar (understanding of the language or aesthetics of each medium), and of the medium (understanding of the type of setting or environment).
  • Zettl (1998) says, “We need to know how the basic aesthetic building blocks are used to create and shape our cognitive and affective mental maps” (p. 81).

Combination of Skills and Knowledge

  • Bazalgette (2001) talks about the diversity of skills and tasks that fall under the umbrella of the term media literacy. She says, “One or more of the following may constitute ‘media literacy,’ depending on what country you are in and what level of education you are addressing: mastery of a repertoire of semiotics-based techniques for the analysis of visual images; the ability to plan and record/shot (and maybe even edit) a film, video, audio tape, or photo sequence; the acquisition of a range of critical theories from sociology, or cultural studies, or art history, and the ability to redeploy them in relation to media; knowledge and appreciation of certain key texts (usually films) and the ability to speak or write about their aesthetic, dramatic, or moral values; knowledge of the industrial and economic structures of media industries; a general awareness of the economic and ideological functions of media texts and the ability to identify stereotypes and bias” (pp. 73-74).
  • The National Leadership Conference on Media Literacy says, “A media literate person … can decode, evaluate, analyze, and produce both print and electronic media” (Aufderheide, 1993, p. 79). People also need to know five things: (1) media messages are constructed; (2) media messages are produced within economic, social, political, historical, and aesthetic contexts; (3) the interpretation of meaning-making processes involved in message reception consists of an interaction between the reader, the text, and the culture; (4) media have unique languages, characteristics that typify various forms, genres, and symbol systems of communication; and (5) media representations play a role in people’s understanding of social reality (Aufderheide, 1993).
  • Hobbs (2001) says that the skills media-literate people need are the abilities to access, analyze, evaluate, and communicate. In addition, they need production skills. Knowledge is also important, with the “key analytic concepts” being the following: 1) All messages are constructions. 2) Messages represent their makers’ notions of social reality. 3) Individuals negotiate meaning by interacting with messages. 4) Messages have economic, political, social, and aesthetic purposes. 5) Each form of communication has unique characteristics.

Purpose of Media Literacy

Improvement of Individuals

  • Anderson (1983), in a review of television literacy projects until the early 1980s, listed 11 objectives that he found to be prevalent in those projects. As objectives, this list describes what a literate person should be able to do and think.
  • In the United Kingdom, academics and practitioners were able to agree on the following points. Media education should foster “the development of a critical spirit” while encouraging “collaboration with professional people and agencies in both fields” (Huguier, 1992, pp. 222-223).
  • Buckingham (1993) points out that television has been regarded, especially in America, as having powerful negative influences on children, such as being addictive, being harmful to mental health and personal relationships, and being the cause of social unrest and disintegration. The purpose of literacy is to blunt the negative effects of television.

The National Leadership Conference on Media Literacy says, “The fundamental objective of media literacy is critical autonomy in relationship to all media … including informed citizenship, aesthetic appreciation and expression, social advocacy, self-esteem, and consumer competence” (Aufderheide, 1997, pp. 79-80).

  • Desmond (1997) says that people need to be critical consumers of entertainment and advertising fare and they need to have insight and information to enable intelligent viewing.
  • Rafferty (1999) says that people need to be critical consumers of ideas and information. This involves interpreting media messages (creating personal meaning from codes and conventions) as well as thinking critically about them.
  • Lewis and Jhally (1998) say that “the goal of media literacy is to help people become sophisticated citizens rather than sophisticated consumers” (p. 109).


  • Grow (1990) reasons that if the goal of media programs in higher education is to educate students to become reflective, self-directed, communication citizens and, perhaps, practitioners, then the process of teaching can be seen as moving students from dependency to self-direction.
  • Buckingham (1993) points out that the pedagogical role of television literacy has been for educators to defend those who are believed to be less capable of defending themselves from negative effects. “The ultimate aim of most television literacy curricula is to encourage children to police their own viewing behaviour—if not by reducing the amount of television they watch, then at least by watching it in ways which are assumed to minimize its influence” (p. 21). Furthermore, he challenges those who argue that teaching media literacy can be both proscriptive and non-hierarchical when he says that the aim to “demystify” students while using a “non-hierarchical” pedagogy “clearly places the teacher in a contradictory position—on the one hand, as the bearer of a ‘truth’ that is not available to the students, yet on the other as an equal partner in dialogue” (p. 287).
  • The National Communication Association (formerly the Speech Communication Association), which has taken a lead in communication and media assessment efforts, released a set of national standards, with two applying to media literacy:

Standard 22: The effective media participant can demonstrate the effects of the various types of electronic audio and visual media, including television, radio, the telephone, the Internet, computers, electronic conferencing, and film, on media consumers.

Standard 23: The effective media participant can demonstrate the ability to identify and use skills necessary for competent participation in communication across various types of electronic audio and visual media. (Speech Communication Association, 1996)

  • The Center for Advanced Technology (1997) says that media literacy is concerned with helping students develop an informal and critical understanding of the nature of mass media, the techniques used by them, and the impact of these techniques. More specifically, it is education that aims to increase the students’ understanding and enjoyment of how media work, how they produce meaning, how they are organized, and how they construct reality. Media literacy also aims to provide students with the ability to create media products.
  • Aufderheide (1997, p. 80) believes that media educators hold the following ideas in common: 1) Media are constructed and construct reality. 2) Media have commercial implications. 3) Media have ideological and political implications. 4) Form and content are related in each medium, each of which has a unique aesthetic, codes, and conventions. 5) Receivers negotiate meaning in media.
  • The Council of Europe Resolution on Education in Media and New Technologies says, “Pupils should be given an understanding of the structures, mechanisms and messages of the mass media. In particular, pupils should develop the independent capacity to apply critical judgement to media content. One means to this end, and an objective in its own right, should be to encourage creative expression in the pupils’ own media messages, so that they are equipped to take advantage of opportunities for the expression on particular interests in the context of participation at local level” (Masterman, 2001, p. 15).
  • Masterman (2001) argues that there is a sense that the very act of studying media can help democratize the teacher-student relationship because the act of critiquing is one of “reflection and dialogue” (p. 44). There is even a sense that media literacy demands a different type of teaching that is democratic and nonhierarchical (Bazalgette, 2001; Masterman, 1985, 2001).
  • Masterman (2001) argues that the objective of media literacy is to “produce well-informed citizens who can make their own judgements on the basis of the available evidence. In so far as media education deals with value judgements, it does so in the ways which encourage students to explore the range of value judgements made about a given media text and to examine the sources of such judgements (including their own) and their effects. It does not seek to impose ideas on what constitutes ‘good’ or ‘bad’ television, newspapers, or films” (p. 41).
  • Masterman (1985) believes that the goal of media education is to help people understand how media distort aspects of reality as they manufacture their messages and how symbol systems mediate our knowledge of the world.
  • The Council of Europe Resolution on Education in Media and New Technologies, which was adopted by European ministers of education says, “Education in the new technologies and media should play an empowering and liberating role, helping to prepare pupils for democratic citizenship and political awareness” (Masterman, 2001, p. 15).
  • Brown (1998) says, “A major goal of media education is to help recipients of mass communication become active, free participants in the process rather than static, passive, and subservient to the images and values communicated in a one-way flow from media sources” (p. 47).
  • Some believe that the purpose of media literacy education is the same as the purpose of education in general, that is, to educate people to be aware of their place in the world as well as to become empowered citizens and consumers (Blanchard & Christ, 1993; McLaren, Hammer, Sholle, & Reilly, 1995; Sholle & Denski, 1994).


  • Anderson (1983) uses the term impact mediation to refer to thoughts or behaviors that are stimulated by social issues that are, in turn, influenced by media content; these issues are things such as violence, materialism, nutrition, body image, distortion in news reporting, and stereotyping by race, class, gender, and sexual orientation.
  • Lewis and Jhally (1998) contend that media literacy should go beyond textual analysis into ideological/political economy issues.
  • Communities of people who interact in complex social and cultural contexts should be created, and this awareness should be used to decide what textual positions to accept (Buckingham, 1998).

What is a Media-Literate Person?

As can be seen in the above analysis of definitional work on media literacy, there are many different types of definitions and many positions taken on the three issues of which media, what type of literacy, and the purpose of media literacy. Nevertheless, it is important to note that the scholars who write about media literacy and address it from one particular point of view do not argue against other points of view; that is, their different positions are not adversarial. Instead, different writers chose to emphasize different aspects of this large, complex phenomenon of media literacy. It is important to keep this in mind as we try to organize all this thinking. Therefore, we need to take a broad view of media literacy—one that tries to take into consideration as many of the ideas as possible in a complementary fashion. To this end, I provide a description of what a person needs to think and do in order to be considered media literate. There are nine characteristics as follows:

1. Both skills and information are important. If we have a great deal of information but weak skills, we will not be able to make much sense of the information. The information will be likely stored in our memories, but it will not be evaluated and integrated into useful knowledge structures. Skills are needed to sort through information and organize it. The key skills are analysis, evaluation, grouping, induction, deduction, abstraction, synthesis, and persuasive expression. On the other hand, if we have strong skills but don’t expose ourselves to a range of media messages or real-world experiences, our knowledge structures will be very limited and unbalanced. The key areas for knowledge are media industries, media content, media effects, real-world information, and knowledge about self. (For more on these skills and knowledge components, please see Potter, 2004, 2008.)

2. Media literacy is the set of perspectives from which we expose ourselves to media and interpret the meaning of the messages we encounter. We build our perspectives from knowledge structures. The knowledge structures form the platforms on which we stand to view the multifaceted phenomenon of media—their organizations, their content, and their effects on individuals and institutions. The more knowledge structures we have, the more of media phenomenon we can “see.” And the more developed our knowledge structures, the more context we will have to help us understand what we see.

3. Media literacy must be developed. No one is born media literate. Media literacy must be developed, and this development requires effort from each individual. The development is also a long-term process that never ends; that is, no one ever reaches a point of total, complete media literacy. Skills can always be more highly developed; if they are not continually improved, they will atrophy. Also, knowledge structures are never finished because media and real worlds are constantly changing.

4. Media literacy is multidimensional. The information in the knowledge structures is not limited to cognitive elements but should also contain emotional, aesthetic, and moral elements. The four types of elements work together such that the combination of any three types helps provide context for the fourth type. Strong knowledge structures contain information from all four of these domains. If one type of information is missing, the knowledge structure is less elaborate than it could be. For example, people who have a knowledge structure without any emotional information are able to be highly analytical when they watch a movie and quote lots of facts about the history of the movie’s genre, the director’s point of view, and the underlying theme. But if they cannot evoke an emotional reaction, they are simply going through a dry, academic exercise.

5. Media literacy is not limited to one medium. The key idea here is that the old idea of literacy was limited to reading and further limited to recognizing symbols. This continues to be the essence of literacy for print media. But media literacy is something much broader, that is, constructing meaning from experiences and contexts (economic, political, cultural, etc.). Media differ in terms of the symbols they use, how they regard audiences, their motives for doing business, and their aesthetics. The more people know about these differences across media, the more they can appreciate commonalities and the more they can understand how messages are sensitive to the medium in which it is delivered.

6. Media-literate person exhibits an understanding that the purpose of media literacy is to exercise more control over exposures and meaning making. The purpose of becoming more media literate is to gain greater control over one’s exposures and to construct one’s own meaning from the messages in those exposures. When people do this, they are in control of determining what is important in life and setting expectations for experiences in those important areas. If they do not do this for themselves, the flood of media messages will do this for them in the default condition. Media will not only set the agenda and tell people what to think about, but media will also set the standards for important things in a person’s life—standards for success, happiness, character, and beauty. Media will set impossible standards for how we should live our lives, the appearance of one’s body, the velocity of success in careers, the value of material goods, and the intensity of relationships.

7. Media literacy must deal with values. Masterman (2001) argues that media education “does not seek to impose specific cultural values.” He continues, “It does not seek to impose ideas on what constitutes ‘good’ or ‘bad’ television, newspapers, or films” (p. 41). Of course, that position in itself is value laden. Whereas media educators may not be defining bad and good messages, they are implying that mindless exposure to messages is bad and that interpreting the messages actively is good. The issue is not whether this enterprise of media literacy is value laden or not. Instead, the issue is focused on identifying what those values are and who controls them.

8. Media-literate person increases mindful exposures. A person who has a strong perspective on media phenomenon has a high potential to act in a media-literate manner. The set of knowledge structures by itself does not indicate media literacy; the person must actively and mindfully use the information in those knowledge structures during exposures to media messages. Thus, people who are more highly media literate spend less exposure time in automatic processing of messages. They are more consciously aware of their goals for the exposure and are consciously making decisions about filtering and meaning construction. This is not to say that highly media-literate people do not spend considerable time in automatic processing; they do. Nevertheless, when they are in the state of automaticity, they are being governed by automatic routines that they have had a hand in forming rather than being governed by routines conditioned almost exclusively by media.

9. Media-literate people exhibit an understanding that media literacy is a continuum, not a category. Media literacy is not a category where a person either is media literate or is not. Instead, media literacy is best regarded as a continuum—like a thermometer—where there are degrees. We all occupy some position on media literacy continuum. There is no point below which we could say someone has no literacy, and there is no point at the high end where we can say that someone is fully literate—there is always room for improvement. People are positioned along that continuum based on the strength of their overall perspective on media. The strength of a person’s perspective is based on the number and quality of knowledge structures. And the quality of knowledge structures is based on the level of a person’s skills and experiences. Because people vary substantially on skills and experiences, they will vary on the number and quality of their knowledge structures. Hence, there will be great variation in media literacy across people.

People operating at lower levels of media literacy have weak and limited perspectives on media. They have smaller, more superficial, and less organized knowledge structures, which provide an inadequate perspective to use in interpreting the meaning of a media message. These people are also habitually reluctant or unwilling to use their skills, which remain underdeveloped and therefore more difficult to employ successfully.


There has been a great deal of dynamic scholarly activity producing a wide range of ideas about what media literacy should be, its purposes, and the techniques that can be used to achieve it. Nevertheless, all this scholarly activity has not translated into a clear definition that is shared by all media literacy scholars and practitioners. People continue to debate which elements are the most important ones for media literacy.

Across all the thinking about media literacy, there are several themes that underlie a great deal of that thinking. Media literacy must be developed, and that development requires the use of skills to build knowledge structures. These knowledge structures about media and the real world then form perspectives that we use to understand media. Therefore both skills and knowledge are important. Media literacy is not limited to any one medium but instead provides perspectives to understand all kinds of content presented by all media. The purpose of media literacy is to help people develop greater understandings so that they can control the influence of media on them in their everyday lives. Greater control is not simply limiting exposure to media. Instead, greater control begins with the ability to know the difference between those media messages that can enhance one’s life and those messages that are likely to be of harm to oneself. This understanding can lead people to use media as tools to achieve their own goals rather than allow media to use them as tools to achieve media’s goals. Finally, values are important. People who have a clear understanding of their own moral, emotional, and aesthetic values will be less likely to accept the values presented in media messages without questioning them.