What is Media Literacy?
Media Literacy is a 21st century approach to education. It provides a framework to access, analyze, evaluate and create messages in a variety of forms — from print to video to the Internet. Media literacy builds an understanding of the role of media in society as well as essential skills of inquiry and self-expression necessary for citizens of a democracy. (Adapted from materials produced by the Center for Media Literacy, www.medialit.org)
Media literacy is the ability to understand how mass media work, how they produce meanings, how they are organized, and how to use them wisely. The media literate person can describe the role media play in his or her life. The media literate person understands the basic conventions of various media, and enjoys their use in a deliberately conscious way. The media literate person understands the impact of music and special effects in heightening the drama of a television program or film…this recognition does not lessen the enjoyment of the action, but prevents the viewer from being unduly credulous or becoming unnecessarily frightened. The media literate person is in control of his or her media experiences.
“The media” are actually many forms of communication…including newspapers, magazines, and billboards, radio, television, videocassettes, video games, and computer games.
Why teach media literacy to kids, or to anyone, for that matter?
Because American kids spend more time watching television than they do in school or play. The average child watches approximately thirty hours of television per week! The Los Angeles Times recently reported that 37% of children aged 9 – 11 have their own TV’s, as compared to 49% of 12 -13 year-olds, and 54% of 14 – 15 year-olds.
Media bring the world into our homes. From them, we learn about war and peace, the environment, new scientific discoveries, and so on. We are dependent upon mass communication for knowing what is going on in our physical, social, economic, and political environments. In other words, almost everything we know about people, places, and events that we cannot visit first-hand comes from the media. We also rely on media for entertainment and pleasure. Television and film have become the storytellers of our generation; these stories tell us about who we are, what we believe, and what we want to be.
The cumulative impact of mass media is to unconsciously shape our visions of ourselves. In some ways, this is fine: we can learn from the media that our nation is strong and decent, that our political process is reliable, and that our technological achievements are often remarkable. But in other ways, allowing the mass media to shape our images of ourselves is dangerous because the media must follow conventions that are often out-of-sync with real life.
Mass media can teach us what it means to be a woman, what families are supposed to be like, or what it means to grow old. Because we receive these messages over and over, we may unconsciously come to accept them as truth without really thinking about it.
The dangers of not thinking about media are greatest for young children, who are among our nation’s heaviest but least sophisticated viewers. By failing to help them develop media literacy skills that will allow them to analyze critically what they see and later read, we allow their developing visions of themselves to be controlled by men and women remote from them and from us, whose values and visions we may not share.
The purpose of media literacy is to empower people to understand the mass media and how it works so that they can be in control of this important aspect of their own lives.
To look is one thing,
To see what you look at is another,
To understand what you see is a third,
To learn from what you understand is still something else:
To act on what you learn is all that matters.
— Taoist saying
The above discussion is adapted in part from the book Media & You: An Elementary Curriculum