Media Literacy 101

Part 3 of 5 in a series by CUE guest blog editor Doug Robertson

Brain connectivity, vector illustrationStudies have shown that by 2015, the average American will consume over fifteen hours of media each day, not counting work time. This sounds impossible, but media researchers count the times that we are actually using more than one medium at a time. You might be reading this post in front of the television or while listening to music – double media usage! If only our sleep could be as productive.

Media themselves (“media” is actually the plural form of the word “medium”) are neither good nor bad, they’re just tools like anything else. But when we are spending so much time with them, they deserve to be studied, analyzed and scrutinized. How is all this media usage affecting us? How is it affecting students?

The term “media literacy” has been around for years, with various definitions. Most of the definitions include the words “analyze”, “critique” and “evaluate” – and with the emphasis on critical thinking in today’s schools, who could argue with those verbs? I’ve heard media literacy be described as “trying to teach the fish that water exists”.  How do you make kids aware of the role that the media play in their lives? They constantly swim in this water of media messages.  What are they learning?They are learning about politics, relationships, marriage, education, love, friendship, health, identity, and consumerism. They learn about wars, riots, protests, and debate. They learn about love, sex, marriage and, divorce. They learn what it means to be handsome, beautiful, and successful. They learn about products that will fix their implied inadequacies and they discover inadequacies they didn’t know they had.

But they also see victories, celebrations, sportsmanship, talent, and citizenship. They see inspiring heroes, athletes, and characters. Media expose them to people and countries and situations that they might never experience in person. To claim that the media are harmful is a gross over-generalization.

Little computer genius with a tabletYet to claim that media should not be analyzed is a mistake.

Fifteen hours of daily consumption most surely has an impact. Even though many media productions are created specifically to entertain, they do educate us as well. And they don’t always educate us accurately.

Thousands of studies have been done about the relationship between media consumption and our perceptions of “reality”. But anyone can tell you stories that require no research: the student who thinks everyone in Africa lives in a hut or the friend who shares an obviously-doctored photo on social media.  We are reared and educated in a mediated world.

There are issues with our mass media this is true. Researchers will tell you that too much media consumption can lead to obesity, lower school achievement, aggression, and even rudeness.

But we cannot change the messages of the media. They enjoy First Amendment protection, along with the senders of those messages. The obvious way to avoid any potentially negative effects of the “big bad media” is to become media literate and educate the receivers of the messages.

When I tell people that I teach media literacy, many assume that means that I am very anti-media. That couldn’t be further from the truth. I explain it this way: a food critic doesn’t hate food. In fact, a food critic has a great appreciation for food. But a food critic examines how the product is produced and presented. The taste, color, smell, and texture of the food is important. A food critic can appreciate a wonderful meal for all of those reasons. But a food critic might also notice deficiencies in the dish that others might not.  Being media literate doesn’t mean you hate the media. It means you analyze its production, presentation, effect and yes, its “taste”. It means loving something and at the same time wanting it to be better.

According to the National Association for Media Literacy Education, media literacy means more than just being aware of the media around us. We need to analyze and evaluate these messages.  Critique them.

Media literacy also accepts that media messages play a huge role in our socialization and culture. Who are the storytellers in our society today? What effects do they have?

im internet suchenThe idea of being “media literate” is one that is hard to debate. In fact, media literacy courses are required in many countries including Canada. Media literacy has had a tougher road in the United States, however. Although many can agree on its importance, there is no consensus on where or when or how it should be taught.  School schedules are already full. we really going to ask teachers to do one more thing?

Using media literacy in the classroom does not mean a teacher shows a YouTube clip or has iPads. It must go deeper. The next generation needs to know some context behind all the media they consume. What’s the history? Who’s creating these messages? Who makes money from these messages? How are they involved in the process? What is the point of view of the message?

The road to media literacy can begin anywhere – not just the school library or a classroom.  Simple questions can help a student or child not only become aware of the media’s presence but its influence as well.  It’s time to make sure that all children receive this 21st century survival skill.

1. U.S. Media Consumption to Rise to 15.5 Hours a Day – Per Person by 2015

2. Core Principles of Media Literacy Education 

Julie Smith - Media Literacy 101Julie Smith has taught media courses at the university level for fifteen years.  Lately, she’s been doing media literacy and social media workshops for parents, teachers and conferences around the country. An advocate for media and digital literacy, you can find her lurking on Twitter at @julnilsmith or at the store buying more milk for her three teenage sons. She is the author of “Master the Media: How Teaching Media Literacy Can Save Our Plugged-In World“.


About author View all posts

Julie Smith

2 CommentsLeave a comment