Media Literacy

— The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation
Updated on Feb 18, 2011

As American culture becomes increasingly permeated with media messages and images, many advocates and educators have moved toward media literacy as a way to educate young people about the role media play in their lives. There is a wide diversity of perspectives and approaches in the emerging media literacy movement. Some proponents contend that media literacy is a viable way to mitigate the potential adverse effects of media and enhance its benefits. Others argue that media literacy education should help youth become critical media consumers as well as empower them as citizens to make informed choices and actively participate in society.

Defining Media Literacy

According to the definition established by the National Leadership Conference on Media Literacy, media literacy is the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, and produce communication in a variety of forms.1 In essence, a media literate person can think critically about what they see, hear and read in books, newspapers, magazines, television, radio, movies, music, advertising, video games, the Internet, and new emerging technology. For many proponents, it also includes learning how to create messages using print, audio, video, and multimedia.

Advocates of media literacy emphasize five basic principles for critical analysis of media messages:2

  • Media messages are constructed.
  • Messages are representations of reality with embedded values and points of view.
  • Each form of media uses a unique set of rules to construct messages.
  • Individuals interpret media messages and create their own meaning based on personal experience.
  • Media are driven by profi t within economic and political contexts.

Media Literacy Education

While there is no national policy on media education in the United States,3 several policymakers endorse media literacy programs as a way to educate and enlighten children about media.4 Within the nation's educational system, media literacy standards and curricula have been developed by individual states, districts, schools or teachers, as well as professional organizations.5

K-12 Schools

  • According to a recent study, all 50 states now have at least one element of media literacy as part of the educational framework. Most incorporate media literacy as a component in major subject areas such as English, language and communication arts, social studies, civics or health.6
  • A preliminary e-survey of U.S. colleges and universities revealed that training in media literacy is in the formative stage of development in teacher education programs.7 Educational opportunities are largely limited to continuing education courses, in-service workshops, professional conferences, seminars and institutes.8
  • The media literacy movement has spawned two national organizations in the United States that advance media education training, networking, and information exchange through professional conferences and media list-serves: Alliance for a Media Literate America (AMLA) and Action Coalition for Media Education (ACME).11
  • Some free speech advocates support media literacy education as a preferable alternative to efforts to restrict access to ideas and information that may be potentially harmful to children.9
  • There are critics of media literacy education who debate the merits of teaching about popular culture because they claim it weakens the quality of instruction and undermines teacher authority. Some also object to any additions to the already overburdened curriculum, question the protectionist approach as an educational objective, equate media literacy with media-bashing, or oppose it for other reasons.10

Beyond the Classroom

  • Media literacy education is not limited to formal classroom instruction. A variety of extra-curricular programs teach media literacy skills as part of after-school activities, summer camps, community organizations, and faith-based groups, and several organizations actively support youth media makers.12

Family Media Literacy

  • Since home is where children spend most of their time using media, some proponents of media literacy have focused on helping parents develop their children's media literacy skills through active mediation,13 including making a family media plan, using media together, and discussing media content with children.14
  • The National PTA is an advocate for children's media issues and developed the Taking Charge of Your TV project in partnership with Cable in the Classroom and the National Cable and Telecommunications Association. The project trains cable and PTA leaders in key elements of media literacy to present workshops for parents, caregivers, educators, and community groups.15 Other media organizations and independent consultants offer similar training and workshops.16
  • The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) advises pediatricians to talk to parents and their children during offi ce visits about media exposure to determine how family media habits contribute to a child's psychosocial and physical well-being. The AAP Media Matters Campaign also provides media education resources for parents and recommends guidelines for healthy development.17

Media Literacy Resources for Educators and Parents

Action Coalition for Media Education

Alliance for a Media Literate America

Cable in the Classroom

Center for Media Literacy

Media Literacy Clearinghouse

Media Literacy Online Project

National Telemedia Council

Project Look Sharp

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