Intellectual Traditions in Media Literacy

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Theory and Practice of Media Literacy

A resource for scholars and others interested in media literacy. This document was originally developed by graduate students enrolled in BTMM 589, "Theory and Practice of Media Literacy Education" which was taught by Professor Renee Hobbs in the Fall of 2006 at Temple University's School of Communication and Theater. Students enrolled in the course in the Fall of 2007 continue to develop, modify and expand the site, contributing their own understanding of the course readings and critical analysis.

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Linked Pages of Interest
1. Media literacy
2. Why is Media Literacy Important
3. Intellectual Traditions in Media Literacy
4. Media Literacy in K-12 Settings
5. Great Debates in Media Literacy
6. What does Media Literacy look like in Non-School Settings
7. Research on Media Literacy

Influence of Postmodernism on Media Education[edit]

Postmodernism emerged in the early 60s, primarily as a revolt against elitism and in reaction to the commercialization of modernism by bourgeois culture.

The move toward postmodernism was a way to disintegrate the distinction between high and low culture. At its base it challenges the hostility to mass culture that modernism was built upon. This was significant since it broke from earlier traditions that relied upon this dualism. Instead, postmodernism is defined by plurality, reflexivity, boundary-crossing, and deconstruction.

For media studies this is very crucial, because it allowed the field to invent itself by developing a critical look at the media, particularly beginning with television and film. It legitimizes these areas as objects of study. By bringing them into the classroom, teachers begin to experiment with mixing high and low culture, comparing TV programs to Shakespeare. This has become even more prevalent in the last 10 years as sampling culture has created a space for students to critique media through the lens of a remix.

Jean-Francois Lyotard is credited for introducing the term postmodernism into circulation in the early 80s. His main contribution to the field of postmodernism was the rejection of universalist stories. He argued for a plurality of voices, diverse and heterogenous. The dissolution of the metanarrative of truth, was replaced by truthS. The process of knowing and learning begins to take precedence over the knowledge itself. “Postmodern pedagogy would teach how to use knowledge as a form of cultural capital without recourse to concern or anxiety about whether what is taught is true or false” (Storey, 175). The shift moves away from understanding a subject and focuses on the act of problematizing, critiquing, and questioning. This legacy is very visible within media education today. Universalist stories are often the object of deconstruction in order to reveal, point-of-view, unravel power relations, and to seek out what is missing. The result is to provide students with a more heterogeneous perspective on a given event and to emphasize the plurality of voices that not only write different texts, but read them differently as well.

Jean Baudrillard is most well known for his writing about the culture of simulation and simulacrum, the morphing of the representation into the real. He argues that we have lost our ability to judge things without a mediated reference point. He argues that this is the result of an economic shift away from the production of things toward the production of information. This move has forced a direct connection between economy and ideology within the cultural sphere.

As Lyotard initiated a revolution against latent meaning, Baudrillard has analyzed the effects one step further. “If there is no real behind the appearance, no beyond or beneath, what can be called with validity a representation? …. Representation does not stand at one remove from reality to conceal or distort it, it is reality” (Storey, 181). For example, he argues the Media don’t just report on the news, they produce it, and they produce it to keep us distracted.

The challenge for media educators is to move beyond discussing the media and push toward asking, what function does the media serve? It is no longer enough to do a textual analysis to see how these things function, we must ask, What is the economic function of image production? How does it work? What are the larger ramifications?

Frederic Jameson argues that postmodernism is a direct result of late multinational capitalism. Extending Baurillard’s thinking, the collapse of the distinction between culture and economic activity has led to the replacement of Popular culture by commercial culture. Additionally, what we have lost from the collapse of the distinction between high and low culture is a perspective of critical space and distance. In place of creativity and innovation we now have a culture of quotes, and blank parody. Media educators may encounter this when doing media production with their students. It is important to guide students to think about the formal choices in order to move beyond imitation of mainstream formats. They should reflect on, not only how to create content, but how to reinvent the form as well. Quotation can be a powerful form of critique, if a new understanding of the subject emerges.

Stucturalism and Post-structuralism: Applications in Media Education[edit]

Structuralism, the home of linguistics and semiotics, is concerned with the sign and symbol systems humans use to communicate. A structuralist approach seeks to discover the abstract rules that govern the system of signification (lexical rules, grammatic rules, genre rules, etc.). For media studies, the structuralist emphasis on the rules of a system privileges textual analysis rather than analysis of the conditions of media production (political economy) or of reception (audience studies). Structural analyses have provided media educators and learners with useful terms with which to talk about the mechanics of media texts (e.g. types of propaganda in ads: appeal to authority, bandwagon, red herring, etc; types of editing in film: montage vs. mise-en-scene). While such terms lend an efficient vocabulary for discussing and recalling media, media educators can also fall into the trap of transmitting knowledge in the form of the grammar of a certain media text or form rather than teaching students to construct knowledge from media analysis and production experiences. On the other hand, student acquisition of prescribed structural knowledge of media texts can easily be assessed in clear standards. So, the common language offered by structuralism may be useful, but should not dominate curricula.

Roland Barthes' approach to textual analysis brings a political element to structuralism, which is very useful in media education. Barthes differs between levels of signification: denotation (the common, explicit relational meaning; e.g. rat=small, gray rodent), connotation (the implicit meanings; rat=dirty, disgusting, disease), and myth (connotations as natural fact; rat=natural part of city life). Note that Barthes use of the term "myth" is different from the common usage. By delineating denotation, connotation, and myth through textual analysis, Barthes seeks to show how meanings are socially constructed, to make the familiar strange. This has been a common goal and practice in media education. For Barthes, the goal is to question and debunk the authority of ideological norms of meaning and signification, which he sees as dominated by the interests of the bourgeois class. Such an explicit political goal may be difficult for educators to approriate in conservative settings. However, such textual analysis can be couched in a more post-structuralist or postmodern context with the goal of explicating, from multiple reading positions, who subscribes to certain myths in certain ways, how, and to what ends, as well as how certain ways of making meaning activate certain identities.

Post-structuralism shifts the focus from the structures of texts to the text as "inseparable from the active process of its many readings" (Storey, 2006, p.98). Jacques Derrida emphasizes the intertextual nature of meaning making, as we must constantly make meaning through difference (I can place this meaning as different from these others which I know from other texts) and deferment (I know this from another text). Texts always contain traces of meaning from other texts. Derrida deconstructs texts by pursuing traces, locating "absent others," and abstracting binary oppositions to interrogate the power dynamic and valuations between them. While this technical approach may be too fine for many media education settings, the focus on the tangled webs of intertextuality and the political aspects of meaning making may be important to include.

Foucault's concern with knowledge and power in terms of discourses offers an opportunity for media educators to connect personal, social and cultural levels of meaning making. A discourse is an "organized and organizing body of knowledge with rules and regulations which govern particular practices (ways of thinking and acting)...Language, for example, is a discourse: it enables me to speak, it constrains what I can say, it constitutes me as a speaking subject" (Storey, 2006, p. 101). Likewise, this wiki is a discourse which enables me to construct media texts, constrains how they are presented (e.g. wiki format, open editing, etc) and how I can communicate (not interpersonally...), and constitutes me as a web author and wiki user. The discourse of media education also plays an obviously dominant role in my participation in this wiki. According to Foucault, "discourses produce knowledge and knowledge is always a weapon of power" (Storey, 2006, p. 102), but power must be thought of as a positive force producing reality rather than repressing or censoring reality (although the reality produced by power may be repressive to certain groups and individuals). By thinking in terms of discourse, media educators and students can begin to see how their personal media interpretations and choices in media production are constrained and enabled socially and culturally as well as how they're identities are constituted. Perhaps recognizing the power dynamics governed by discourses can allow media students to choose to acquire and inhabit discourses to their own advantage, or to contribute to the development of the power dynamics within discourses strategically through their own media production and communicative practices.

Umberto Eco[edit]

In his 1979 article, Can Television Teach? Semiotician Umberto Eco lends a unique perspective of media literacy. As a semiotician, he understands television cultural artifact which can be read, not exactly in the same way as one reads a book, but nonetheless as an event which occurs according to rules, and having a syntax and language of it’s own.

He suggests a ‘...sort of elementary grammar of communications’. In it, he suggests that messages emitted by a Sender are “sent as expression, carrying a certain content according to the codes of the sender”

On the receiving end, rather than receive identical meanings, the Receiver “receive[s the message] as and empty expression to be compared with the codes of the addressee.”

In other words, Eco points out that the meanings intended to be emitted by the producers of a particular television program are not identical to the meanings received by the consumers of it.

He understands the Sender to have “his own set of codes and subcodes, with an entire universe of competence” which corresponds with others through messages, (his term is “empty physical expression[s]”), which are then filled up with the meanings provided by the receiver’s own codes and subcodes from their own system of competence.


Eco draws a distinction between two types of television programming. The one shows ‘straight information’ (He give the example of “television news says that an event, X, happened in Lebanon”). The other type “communicates and opinion, or a more complicated definition of interrelations among events.”

He goes on to distinguish between gross programmes, (”the normal programs usually broadcast by television”) and net programmes, (“a programme about television, a metalinguistic or metatelevisional programme”). Eco suggests that gross programmes be used in the classroom as a sort of negative (or inverted) school book, and that the teacher act as the sender of the net message. By guiding classroom students in critical reflection about the gross programme, or normal television; “it is no longer necessary that the television message be a critical one” because the teacher instructs them how to handle the television message as an object for the process of deconstruction.

A Focus on inquiry.[edit]

Originally media education was covered partially in journalism or film study classes but media literacy today is a more in depth look at all media and how to examine the purpose and meaning of them. Media literacy expands on traditional English language arts by adding film, television, radio, newspapers, video games, advertisements, music, and pop culture in addition to learning about media industries. Popular texts in these various media are used to stimulate the student’s participation more than merely reading books on the subject. It is very interactive and provides critical learning and comprehension skills to the students who derive various meanings and purposes behind texts. Media literacy students analyze texts they experience at school, home or out in public by focusing on five major questions:

1. Who is sending the message and what is the author’s purpose?
2. What techniques are used to attract and hold attention?
3. What lifestyles, values, and points of view are represented in this message?
4. How might different people interpret this message differently?
5. What is omitted from this message? (Hobbs, 2006)

Studying Media as Technology Determining Ideology:
Roots of Neil Postman’s Media Ecology Program at New York University

In a 1990 address to the Association of Communications Administrators (ACA), Postman described how he founded the communications program at New York University based on questions posed in Mcluhan’s book Understanding Media. This Media Ecology program has taken on McLuhan’s questions about a culture’s relationship to its media, with media understood as “complex environments loaded with ideological prejudices” (p. 63). In this speech Postman identifies Mcluhan’s specific influence on his own work through the 1980s:

“My last four books have been only elaborations of two sentences McLuhan wrote in a 1976 book review which appeared in The Journal of Communication. The sentences are as follows: ‘The highly literate.,.tend to have an 'anti-body' immunity to many of the mass effects of electric media which insures their capacity to live as individuals in a mass world. This fact points to the need for a comprehensive study of media ecology which might permit selective survival of whole cultures.’” (p. 63)

Postman explores McLuhan’s notion that it is not the content of cultures that shapes ideologies, but the shape of the culture’s media in relation to human communication and thought that produces the field and scope of ideologies. This idea echoes the mechanical understanding of Marx’s base and superstructure, which Postman recasts with technology as the determining base of the superstructural ideologies instead of control of the means of production. Postman prefers Mannheim’s definition of ideology as habits of thought that give a culture a naturalized sense of the world, of what is real and what is possible (p. 64).

As he does in his books, Postman’s address to the ACA launches into several high culture examples of celebrated thinkers exploring and exploiting the relation between eras of media technology to produce ideology: Moses forbids the technology of sculpture (false idols) to invent a religion of abstraction afforded by the Word; Plato pits the visual culture of written words against Socrates nostalgia for oral traditions; America’s founding fathers constitute the individuality afforded by the printing press into law. It is this last ideological bias towards individuality as granted by the technology of the printed word to which Postman stakes his own allegiance. Postman favors the ideology of the printed word for its affordances of reasoned and orderly discourse and for its production of the notion of intellectual property through which the idea of the self could be projected authoritatively into an infinite future. “Prior to printing, an intense awareness of one's own selfhood was considered a mental aberration. Afterwards, its absence was considered psychopathic” (p. 70).

In closing Postman drew on Harold Innis, McLuhan’s colleague who Postman calls the father of communication studies, “Technologies act in three ways to produce new ideologies: they alter the structure of our interests, that is, the things we think about; they alter the character of our symbols, that is, the things we think with; and they alter the nature of community, that is, the arena in which thoughts develop” (p. 71). Postman fears television and the computer as he sees each debasing the interests, symbols and community practices afforded by print—deliberative reflection, thoughtful discourse, and seriousness. For Postman the television is all entertainment at the expense of seriousness, reflection, and discourse production, and the computer is all speed and data at the expense of reflection and argument.

Postman celebrates high culture and the humanities because of his deep love for the value of history, literature and the arts. As a humanist, he diminishes the value of empirical inquiry because it may complicate and refute his ultimately authoritative structural readings. As a cultural critic, Postman willfully reads only the negative possibilities of technological change because they have particular rhetorical force. Ultimately, Postman is a moralist condemning not only modern lovers of television and computers, but all non-intellectuals as well as all intellectuals who have not postulated their superior discourses as competing rationale for the way things should be for all times. Postman scorns any sort of situated political analysis, as McLuhan did, for its irrelevance as content, while ironically elevating his own narrow bias for print ideologies as something other than content. Still, the ideas are of interest for media teachers and students insofar as they train focus on the technological influences of media on ideology, which should be considered as a determining factor, albeit along with many, many others.

Incorporating the Multiple Intelligences Theory[edit]

Media Education experts encourage the synthesis of the "reading" (analysis and deconstruction) as well as the "writing" (construction/production) of media texts into the media literacy pedagogy - an approach that not only combines theory and practice, but also allows for the assimilation of the theory of Multiple Intelligences into instructional techniques. Some of the many benefits of such an approach are seen in higher levels of engagement and motivation, increased self-esteem and self-expression among students, creative tools that help bridge the divide between the classroom and the 'real world' experiences, and more effective means of assessment of understanding content and concepts for instructors (Thoman & Jolls, 2005).

Cultural Theory & Popular Culture...The politics of the popular

In chapter 9, Storey focuses on two dichotomies situated within cultural studies analysis, the cultural field, and the economic field. He juxtaposes the views of several theorists on opposing sides of this discussion in order to address a ‘paradigm crisis’ discussed in the work of Jim McGuigan. Mcguigan points out, ‘cultural studies has increasingly narrowed its focus to questions of interpretation without situating such questions within a context of material relations of power.’ Storey seems to agree that within the last decade or so, it is much more important to uncritically allow for consumer/user interpretations of pop culture commodities stand as the focal point of cultural studies. He goes on to say, ‘for cultural studies to remain separate is for it to remain politically ineffective as a mode of explanation, and thus for it to remain complicit with the prevailing exploitative and oppressive structures of powers.’ I found this to be an interesting and 'provocative' statement due to its focus on how culture can be used as a form of oppression. What is important for educators in this text is attention to cultural identity for them and their students with relation to power and authority. This relation should be reflected on politically, economically, as well as socially. Through this understanding media literacy educators will better empower and enrich the classroom experience. Additionally, through understanding the cultural and economic fields educators can better students assess commodity debates within and outside the school setting.

The cultural field, within which, according to Storey’s account of John Fiske and Pierre Bourdieu, ‘takes place a cultural struggle between dominant or official culture and popular culture abstracted from economic and technological determinations, but ultimately overdetermined by them.’ If true, this is a powerful stance in that it depicts "high" culture and "low"/popular culture against each other in a battle over aesthetics. Form being the 'pure' aesthetics of "high" culture and function the 'popular' aesthetics of "low" culture. Moreover, the high/low distinctions bring class issues to the forefront. Bourdieu states the 'category of 'taste' functions as a marker of 'class'. As we discussed in class discussions on Marshall Mcluhan form and function are important features to the production and consumption of media.

Storey dissects this field through what McGuigan refers to as ‘the new revisionism, the reduction of cultural studies to competing hermeneutic models of consumption.’ Here he is referring to the opposing views of John Fiske who believes ‘popular culture as a site of struggle, but, while accepting the power of the forces of dominance, it focuses rather upon the popular tactics by which these forces are coped with, are evaded or are resisted…This approach sees popular culture as potentially, and often actually, progressive (though not radical)’. Basically, those without political and economic power have the ability to resist the powerful through ‘semiotic’ (meanings, pleasures and social identities) discourse, which challenges the ideological oppression of capitalism or social activism (transformations of the socio-economic system).

The economic field, within which, according to Storey, the 'significant word is 'access' (privileged over 'use' and 'meaning'). Here he is referring to the views of Peter Golding and Graham Murdock who believes the political economy is where the energy is best spent. They state, 'the work of theorists such as Willis and Fiske in its 'romantic celebration of subversive consumption is clearly at odds with cultural studies' long standing concern with the way the mass media operate ideologically, to sustain and support prevailing relations of domination'. Though they have a point with regards to the historical ways in which media is used to perpetuate the dominance of the ruling class and this must be studied, I agree with Storeys caution of disregarding possible power and interplay of audience 'use' if favor of a strictly economic approach to cultural studies. According to Storey, 'capitalism is not a monolithic system. Like any 'structure' it is contradictory in that it both constrains and enables 'agency'. It is a consequence of this contradiction that audiences/consumers/users of industry commodities are able to interpret these products in new ways. Media Literacy educators can find examples of this throughout the history of hip-hop culture. From sampling, scratching, rhyming as well as today's tension within the movement itself. With the controversial commercialization of hip-hop it is clear that profit and morality are at odds. Storey points to this stating, 'common class interests - unless specific restraints, censorship, etc., are imposed - usually take second place to the interests of particular capitals in search of surplus value'. I tend to agree with this and those educators that concur must be cautious of how this may be expressed with students in the classroom setting.

Online Resources for Learning More[edit]


  • Alliance for a Media Literate America. (2005). Operational policy: Corporate funding. Retrieved October 1, 2006, from
  • Alvarado, M. (1981). Television Studies and Pedagogy. Screen Education, 38, 191-206.
  • Buckingham, D. (2003). Media education: Literacy, learning and contemporary culture. Cambridge: Polity Press.
  • Christ, W. G., & Potter, J. W. (1998). Media literacy, media education, and the academy. Journal of Communication, 48, 5-15.
  • Goodman, S. (2003). Teaching youth media: A critical guide to literacy, video production, and social change. New York: Teachers College Press.
  • Heins, M., & Cho, C. (2003). Media literacy: An alternative to censorship. (2nd ed.). Free Expression Policy Project. Retrieved October 1, 2006, from
  • Hobbs, R. (2007). Reading the media: Media literacy in high school English. New York: Teachers College Press.
  • Hobbs, R., & Frost, R. (1999). Instructional practices in media literacy education and their impact on students' learning. New Jersey Journal of Communication, 6(2), 123-148.
  • Kist, W. (2005). New literacy’s in action: Teaching and learning in multiple media. New York: Teachers College Press.
  • Masterman, L. (1980). Teaching about Television. London: Macmillon.
  • Postman, N. (1990). Media and ideology. ACA Bulletin. January, 1990, pp. 63-72.
  • Storey, J. (1993). An Introduction to Cultural Theory and Popular Culture. "Postmodernism." Hertfordshire: Prentice Hall. pp.169-202.
  • Storey, J. (2006). An Introduction to Cultural Theory and Popular Culture. "The politics of the popular." The University of Georgia Press. pp.155-172.
  • Thoman, E., & Jolls, T. (2005). Media literacy education: Lessons from the center for media literacy. In G. Schwartz & P. U. Brown (Eds.), Media literacy: Transforming curriculum and teaching (Vol. 104, 2005, pp. 180 -205). Malden, MA: National Society for the Study of Education