Why is Media Literacy Important

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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

Recognizing Non-Transparency of Media Representations[edit]

Media literacy is a significant way to challenge students to understand the constructed nature of media representations and how that might influence their own beliefs about themselves and others. Renee: But it is not the only way. General semantics offers another approach to helping students reflect on the constructed nature of symbol systems. Poststructuralism is another. Gaining awareness of the ways that symbol systems shape our perception and interpretation is one of the powerful "aha" moments in media literacy. I wonder if that "aha" is particularly strong or resonant when the medium is perceived as "natural." Could the "aha" offered by post-structuralism or general semantics be more powerful because its focus is on language as a symbol system, which does not appear to us as constructed, biased or limiting?

A representation is a constructed message about reality that can influence viewers’ attitudes and beliefs about the real world. Examining issues of representation in the media teaches students to be critical when encountering representations that often include stereotypes about gender, race, class, sexuality, and disability. Students become more aware about the complexity of representations they encounter in the media and gain a multifaceted understanding of their fabrication.

Media literacy enables students to look upon the world and its representation by the media with a critical eye by providing them with specific skills, tools and techniques. Media literacy empowers students to understand and actively participate in discussions about government and politics, including using the media to make their voices heard. At the same time, from their point of view of citizens, media literate students learn to be skeptical about the role of politicians and to critically examine politicians’ work as representatives of the public’s needs and interests. (Hobbs, 2006)

Motivation and Engagement[edit]

Media literacy allows students to draw on their experience of media forms and connect it to classroom activities. Research shows that when students are engaged in their topic, and can actively connect it to the real world, they are more excited and engaged in learning (Hobbs, 2006). Little research has been conducted on whether or not media literacy may have an impact on school attendance and quality of class participation.

Media literacy can be especially powerful for youth who do not perform well in the school system. Kist (2005) found that "at risk" and marginalized youth became excited and engaged with reading and writing after their experience with media literacy in the classroom (p. 103).

Media literate teenagers are more likely to recognize what Goodman (2003) calls “the cultural triangle of fashion, sports and music” (p. 27) created and promoted by the entertainment industry. By learning to analyze and critique commercial media representations of their own experiences of marginalization and rebellion, poor and minority youth become capable of adopting roles other than those of consumers or criminals (Goodman, 2003). Instead, as media producers, they are empowered to join mainstream society’s discourse by speaking with a voice of their own.

In addition to joining the public discourse, the voices of inner city youth challenge it. According to Goodman, (2003), "Their observations and insights can serve to challenge adult perceptions of teens as hostile and threatening, and also bring diversity to the voices informing public policy" (Cahill, 1997, as sited in Goodman, 2003, p. 30).

Changes in the Quality of Parent-child Interactions[edit]

Scholars have proposed the possibility of improving the quality of parent-child interactions through media education in school. Students at Concord High School are required to take the Media/ Communication course in 11th grade. Their parents have shared that the quality of family communication has been improved since their kids took the course. Students were more engaged with what they had learned about the media, and enjoyed talking about the course at home. They discussed topics or ideas about media, technology, and society with their parents. Such a change of family communication happened not only to top students but also to ordinary students who have not often shared their school works with their parents.

Student Teacher Relationships[edit]

Along the same line, media education can help teachers to build better relationship with students. Students connect themselves more with the topics covered in Media/Communication class than what they learn in other traditional academic courses. Teachers also get to learn more about their students, as students give unpredictable and original responses regarding various topics.

Social and Interpersonal Relationship Skills[edit]

It has been hypothesized that media literacy builds social skills through extensive opportunities for sharing ideas, listening, teamwork, and collaboration. For example, in the Snow Lake School in Manitoba, eighth grade students were assigned an advertising project. Students were to complete a print ad, a radio ad and an Internet ad. Once they performed research on current advertising, they were able to construct their own campaign, which in turn were constructing meaning. Interestingly enough, when the students were asked about their assignment, they were unable to articulate the core meaning behind the assignment. More comments were given about the social interaction and the ability to work together, which students saw as a primary learning experience. They felt that this assignment better prepared them for the professional world (Kist, 2005).

Through media production, a core element of media literacy, students have the rare opportunity to challenge established rules of social interaction and power relations by asking instead of answering questions (Goodman, 2003). This is valid for the interaction dynamics between adults and teenagers, as well as between marginalized and privileged communities.

Reading Positions[edit]

Through media literacy educators can demonstrate how different people interpret a text depending on the reader’s historical and social background. It is important in today’s curriculum because the proliferation of media in today’s youth creates the need for students to be able to “read” the abundance of messages they are exposed to (Hobbs, 2006).

Civic Involvement[edit]

Media literacy is crucial for the development of citizenship skills needed to promote a thriving democracy. Political campaigns and issues are primarily conveyed through 30-second television ads or, at best, half-hour news interviews on Sunday mornings. With so little attention paid to issues from our primary forms of media consumption, it is imperative for people to learn how to read the messages they are bombarded with and recognize the reasons and decisions behind what is being presented to them (Thoman & Jolls, 2005).

Competitive Power[edit]

In this media-saturated society, information comes not only through the written words but also through the images and sounds. Media literacy can allow students to fluently read and write audio/visual language would have more competitive power to better thrive in our multimedia culture (Thoman & Jolls, 2005).

Critical Thinking Skills[edit]

Media analysis, which is a crucial part of media literacy education, can develop critical thinking skills, by strengthening observation and interpretation. For example, students can examine and challenge the stereotypes, biases, and hidden motivation of the producers. (Thoman & Jolls, 2005).

New Ways of Learning[edit]

Formal education is facing a formidable challenge in adapting to a media-saturated environment, in which traditional schooling methods are obsolete or irrelevant. Instead of assisting students in memorizing facts about the world or information storage, modern education should impart higher-order thinking skills such as analyzing and evaluating an overwhelming amount of information that is usually just a few clicks away. (Thoman and Jolls, 2005)

“And now yet children--particularly younger children—are increasingly participating in cultural and social worlds that are inaccessible, even incomprehensible to their parents.” (Buckingham, 2003, p. 32). The new world that children inhabit is largely the world of the media. Buckingham documents that the media plays a significant part in the lives of children, and how they construct meaning. The significance of the media in the lives of children is largely ignored by the school system, which results in a gap between children’s ‘in school’ and ‘out of school’ experience. Children should feel that their education has personal relevance. It is more important to build skills that children will use in their daily lives, than to do things because of traditions set 200 years ago. The school system needs to change as students change, it needs to evolve and progress. This will make the process of education more enriching and meaningful for the children involved. A strong connection to school and the outside world may powerfully affect the lives of teenagers, who may feel profound disconnect between their life experience and their school experience. Using media text (text students already know) may decrease drop out rates and increase student interest. Perhaps media education can educate teachers about students as well. When teachers know their student’s media preferences, they can use media to open up dialogue about a multitude of topics.

“Yet, if media education is to help bridge the widening gap between the school and the world of children’s out-of-school experience, it must surely begin with the knowledge children already possess” (Buckingham, 2003, p. 34). Buckingham places value on the experience that children gain as participants in their surrounding culture. This ideology positions the student as knowledgeable not just as a vessel that needs to be filled with information. This idea alone could revolutionize the field of education. Giving value to children’s knowledge may help them to own their experiences and opinions. Teaching should extend beyond “right” and “wrong” answers. Critical thinking will prepare children for the real world, where issues are much more complex than black and white. Children should learn how to sort through life’s complexities, and this involves having their opinions, experiences, and voices validated. Treating each child as a knowledgeable human being with important beliefs and experiences may help to draw children out of their protective shell. In addition, it may help incorporate children of different learning abilities and/or background beliefs into the classroom. Valuing the child's unique input may help those who are “at risk” of failing out of the school system. Many of these children may not believe they are intelligent, and may associate school with personal failure. What remains untouched here is the actual state of schools in the United States. Conditions may vary significantly school by school, or teacher by teacher. Buckingham’s area of expertise lies predominantly within the British school system. More research is needed to understand the perspectives of students, teachers, and school administrators.

Buckingham (2003) provides very explicit goals for media education, which seem at odds with traditionally established notions of education and learning: “Media education is seen here not as a form of protection, but as a form of preparation… In broad terms, it aims to develop young people’s understanding of, and participation in, the media culture that surrounds them (Balazgette, 1989)… Broadly speaking, therefore, this new approach seeks to begin with what students already know, and with their existing tastes and pleasures in the media, rather than assuming that these are merely invalid or ‘ideological’. This approach does not seek to replace ‘subjective’ responses with ‘objective’ ones, or to neutralize the pleasures of the media through rational analysis. On the contrary, it aims to develop a more reflexive style of teaching and learning, in which students can reflect on their own activity both as ‘readers’ and as ‘writers’ of media texts, and understand the broader social and economic factors that are in play. Critical analysis is seen here as a process of dialogue, rather than a matter of arriving at an agreed or predetermined position” (Buckingham, 2003, p. 13-14).

In other words, according to Buckingham, media education does not provide the right answers, but prefers to state the right questions instead. Also, it creates a new kind of learning environment, where students are not armed with insights, skills or tools for withstanding the temptations or threats of the media. On the contrary, the departing point of media education are existing media-related practices and pleasures. Such premise is fair and justified if teachers are to approach learners not as traditional authority figures who judge and sermonize about the perils of media use and its implications. We should not consider this a simplistic trick aimed at engaging students’ interest and taking advantage of their out-of-school experiences. Instead, media education aims at broadening established media-based learning practices by stimulating reflection on media use and, from there, on understanding the cultural, social, economic and political aspects of media producers, products and audiences. Positioning teachers as partners in a dialogue rather than guardians of longstanding truth and wisdom is a challenging precept for teachers and students alike, not to mention parents and the public. Century-long pedagogic norms may seem undermined by media education’s innovative approach to the positioning of teachers, learners and media in the learning process. However, Buckingham rightfully points to the decreasing authority of schools as a socializing actor in modern society; thus media education is not making groundbreaking discoveries, but merely reflects ongoing processes that ought to find their place in the formal education system.

The Place of Traditional Teaching in Media Education[edit]

One product of progressivist pedagogical ideology may be the demonization of certain traditional teaching methods. While he admits that learner centered reforms have made education more humane, Alvarado (1981) makes powerful claims for more traditional methods, including direct teaching (lecturing, teachers delivering facts from a position of authority), competitive learning structures, and teaching to the test. For Alvarado,“it is necessary to construct a pedagogy that precisely does not depend upon personal experience and, in certain ways, critiques it.” Direct teaching allows educators to present information efficiently and to confront and inform challenges from students who may make comments from perspectives that endanger other students (e.g. racist, sexist, heteronormative, etc). Teaching in competitive structures and teaching to the test both prepare students for economic realities beyond the classroom. Alvarado argues that an exclusively critical and learner centered focus in media education may lead teachers to fail in their responsibility to offer students training to compete in the current dominant culture. By including political economy of media as content and explicitly discussing the ideological and economic rationale for teaching choices, Alvarado suggests that these dualities may be balanced.

Balancing Responsibility: Teaching for Success in the Cultural of Power and Teaching for Change[edit]

Alvarado (1981) makes a sweeping, universal claim for “two strands [that should be] running through every classroom situation: 1) recognition of the power and importance of the structures of the present social formation and a recognition of the need for all people to work within those structures successfully, and 2) a recognition of the importance and potential power of all forms of oppositional knowledge and groupings.” (p. 205)

The first claim recognizes the responsibility of teachers to offer students training in skills valued by the culture of power so that they may compete within that culture for economic advantage. However, this axiom is problematic in that it privileges the teacher’s reading or understanding of “the present social formation.” In the second claim, Alvarado stops well short of seeing the possible agency of students as cultural producers realized by critical or creative practice, student choice and teacher facilitation. This strand denies altogether the possibility of agency outside established, known norms in favor of “recognition of...potential”--a chimera of agency. Some teachers may find this approach a bit timid. Still, the balance of critical training and training within the culture of power is an important issue with which all teachers should consciously struggle.

Cultural Theory and Popular Culture[edit]

John Storey’s Cultural Theory and Popular Culture is his approach to ‘map out the general conceptual landscape of popular culture’. This is an important exploration for teachers of Media Education for it lends assistance to the struggle of cultivating critical thinking skills in students rather than imposing one’s own view about good/bad culture. This is accomplished through summations of various schools of thought found in the works of key theorists.

Continuing his mapping in Chapter 3, Culturalism, Storey compares the works of Richard Hoggart, Raymond Williams, E. P. Thompson, Stuart Hall, and Paddy Whannel in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Each Theorist introduces a perspective on how culture is made and should be studied in order to understand the progression of popular culture. While Hoggart believes popular culture was once pure, created by and for the people of the working-class, and then corrrupted by an industry spawned mass culture, Williams points out that full access to understanding a culture comes from those who lived it. However, once the lived historical moment has passed the ‘structure of feeling’ fragments leaving the cultural analysis a documentary record that is selective in nature; thus analysis itself can never be made with absolute certainties. As teachers of Media Education facilitate media analysis with students it is worth self-searching for patterns of cultural traditions of selectivity in one’s own teaching methods.

Storey then briefly shares E.P. Thompson’s intent to share that the working-class was made through a process that manifested over a period of time. Furthermore, to study it is to be actively listening all the time. This is significant to remember in this fast changing modern media culture. Hall and Whannel set out to refute the notion that ‘all high culture is good and that all popular culture is bad.’ They contend that there is a hierarchy that lies within popular culture and the goal is to point out the good from the bad. Regardless of what truth may lie in this argument from a teacher’s point of view, it is again, an opportunity for self-reflection about one’s own interest when teaching students how to study media.

Media Literacy, Cultural Theory, Feminisms, and Gender Studies[edit]

Media literacy can also be associated with feminisms and gender studies, which have long looked at the media to provide texts for cultural analysis. John Storey discusses gender and sexuality in Chapter 7 of Cultural Theory and Popular Culture (2006). Within this chapter, Storey discusses three feminisms, and several critical feminist studies, as well as men’s studies and queer theory.

Regarding feminisms, Storey points out that three feminists exist. First, marxist feminism posits that capitalism is the source of women’s oppression. Second, liberal feminism points to male prejudice against women as the source of the oppression of women. Finally, the dual-system theory of feminism combines marxist and liberal feminism to claim that both patriarchy and capitalism result in the oppression of women. These theories have played out in a significant body of research, including several notable studies.[citation needed]

Jackie Stacey’s (1994) Star Gazing: Hollywood and Female Spectatorship rejected older, patriarchal cine-psychoanalysis and used a new feminist perspective to look at women at the cinema. Stacey found that there were three primary reasons that women go to the cinema. First, escapism is a factor as women use the cinema both to escape into the movie theater and away from the hardships of everyday life. Second, identification is a factor because women identify with movie stars and gain a sense of empowerment, self-confidence, and control. Thirdly, consumption is a factor as women learn from the alternative femininity presented by movie stars and learn how to push accepted social boundaries themselves.

Tania Modleski’s (1982) Loving with a Vengeance looked at women who read romance novels and found that, while feminine narratives in these books seem to contradict with the goals of feminism, in fact these novels demonstrate an important point, namely, that women are dissatisfied with their lives. As such, reading the novels are a form of protest. Janice Radway’s (1984) Remale Desire reached similar conclusions, namely, that women read romance novels, not in approval of patriarchy, but rather in the act of a “utopian protest” and longing for a better world.

Ien Ang’s (1985) Watching Dallas considered the views of women regarding the television show Dallas. Ang divided the participants in her study into three categories. First, there are individuals who view Dallas negatively because they view it as an example of mass culture. The second group enjoyed watching Dallas, but viewed it as an example of mass culture, and as such laughed at it. Finally, a group enjoyed watching Dallas and rationalized their opinion in one of several ways. Some in the third group felt that they could acknowledge the ‘dangers’ of Dallas and deal with them, others felt the show had substance, and still others resorted to watching the show with a sense of irony. As such, Ang explained the way in which viewers attempted to reconcile their own enjoyment of the television show Dallas.

In Inside Women’s Magazines, Janice Winship (1987) considered women who read women’s magazines. Winship argued that women who read women’s magazines are not “cultural dupes of the media institutions” but rather producers of meaning themselves. Conducting 80 interviews of men and women, Winship found that individuals categorize magazines differently, and notably concluded that the way an audience categorizes the magazine and reads the text will have a key role in determining the meaning they will take away from it.

Regarding men’s studies, Storey refers to Anthony Easthope’s (1986) article What a Man’s Gotta Do, which notes that masculinity is a cultural construct, and that the dominant masculinity is only a norm which measures itself against other lived masculinities.

Finally, queer theory is discussed by Storey. Not a discipline “about” lesbian women or gay men, queer theory seeks to breakdown the assumption that gender is natural. Queer theory argues against the assumption that there are only two biological sexes which generate two genders. Further, the theory focuses on the construction of gender in culture.

Each of these theoretical perspectives can be incorporated into a broader understanding of the messages contained in the media, and are a part of media literacy.

Teaching Students to Filter Information[edit]

In his essay Technology as a Dazzling Distraction (1994), Neil Postman argued that the modern emphasis towards including technology as an integral part of the education system in America is actually overlooking the real issues which education ought to address. Postman argues that technologies tend to limit peoples’ options more than they increase them: society creates needs to match available and new technologies, instead of creating technology to match existing needs. In this argument, Postman appears to be agreeing with McLuhan’s famed claim that “the medium is the message,” and that the form of media employed by a society is, in itself, a far more powerful force of cultural change than any particular statement conveyed by means of that media.

However, Postman’s argument goes beyond a claim that technology can shape society, and the educational system, in unintended or unnecessary ways. Postman argues that schools no longer serve the purpose of information-giving. Since the advent of mass media, people have had access to far more information outside of a school setting than can be accessed within the school itself. This point becomes even more clear when considering the growth of the internet and the easy, near-instantaneous access to a plethora of information. Thus, since information, in itself, is no longer particularly difficult to gain, schools need to focus on two other goals: teaching students how to behave as part of a community and, how to ignore and disregard useless information. Thus, the problem of education today is no longer obtaining information; it is now filtering information. This point is, in many ways, addresses a central goal of media literacy education.

Online Resources for Learning More[edit]

  • PODCASTS: Learn about Reel Vision[1], the Boston filmmaking group that works with young people (Episode 15)
  • ORGANIZATIONS: European Centre for Media Literacy [2] Alliance for a Media Literate America [3]


  • Alliance for a Media Literate America. (2005). Operational policy: Corporate funding. Retrieved October 1, 2006, from http://www.amlainfo.org/home/about-amla/policies/operational-policy/operational-policy#8
  • 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 http://www.fepproject.org/policyreports/medialiteracy.pdf
  • 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. (1994). Technology as dazzling distraction. Education Digest, 59(8), 25-29.
  • Storey, J. (2006). Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: An Introduction. (4th ed.). The University of Georgia Press, Athens.
  • 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