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. Renee: Current students and the instructor share their ideas, thoughts and questions about the readings by highlighting them. Readers are invited to participate in the inquiry process by adding questions or ideas of your own.

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

What is Media Literacy?


Media Literacy Defined

In the United States, the most widely used definition of media literacy is "the ability to access, analyze, evaluate and communicate messages in a wide variety of forms." This definition was a collaborative result of participants who attended the 1992 Aspen Media Literacy Leadership Institute. The Center for Media Literacy, however, suggests a more expanded definition of media literacy that emphasizes citizenship and democracy in addition to skills: "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" (Thoman and Jolls, 2005, p. 190).

Media Literacy Defined (Canadian perspective). "Media literacy is concerned with helping students develop an informed and critical understanding of the nature of mass media, the techniques used by them, and the impact of these techniques. More specifically, it is education that aims to increase the students' understanding and enjoyment of how the media work, how they produce meaning, how they are organized, and how they construct reality. Media literacy also aims to provide students with the ability to create media products." (Media Literacy Resource Guide, Ministry of Education Ontario, 1997)

Media Literacy is Not...

Thoman and Jolls (2005) note that, because the definition of media literacy can be so vast, it is almost easier to define what is not media literacy. For instance, they state that media literacy is not media bashing, but involves critically analyzing media messages and institutions. It is not just producing media, although production skills should be included. Media literacy is not simply teaching with videos, the Internet, or other technologies, but it is teaching about the media in society. It is not just looking for stereotypes or negative representations, but exploring how these representations are normalized in society. It's not just based on one perspective, rather, it encourages multiple perspectives and various viewpoints. Finally, media literacy is not an effort to restrict media use, but to encourage mindful and critical media consumption.

Thoman and Jolls (2005) also cite media literacy consultant Faith Rogow who cautions teachers against conveying pre-ordained denouncements of the media and challenges them to reflect on the analytical skills they teach. Are they encouraging critical environments that allow for the expression of substantiated interpretations that may differ with their own or are they inadvertently "preaching" only the "right" answers? She posits this negative approach as "fatally flawed," often resulting in the creation of a "cynical" rather than an "intellectually skeptical" attitude among students.

Why Is Mass Media So Important?

When considering the importance of media education, Buckingham (2003) first defines the central role of the mass media in social, economic and political processes today:

“The media are major industries, generating profit and employment; they provide us with most of our information about the political process; and they offer us ideas, images and representations (both factual and fictional) that inevitably shape our view of reality. The media are undoubtedly the major contemporary means of cultural expression and communication: to become an active participant in public life necessarily involves making use of the modern media. The media, it is often argued, have now taken the place of the family, the church and the school as the major socializing influence in contemporary society” (Buckingham, 2003, p. 5).

Buckingham posits that people increasingly define themselves and interact through the mass media, which serve as a cultural ‘glue’. Consequently, without clearly understanding and effectively using the media, individuals are unable to participate in public life and contribute to the public discourse. Tanya: This seems to have a narrow view of what public life and discourse consists of, I wonder if Buckingham would additionally acknowledge the active public lives of rural communities, for example, that may more often have public meetings than they would refer to blogs for community public discourse. Therefore, Buckingham concludes, traditional social institutions, which previously served as socialization venues, have ceded power to the media. Buckingham makes a nuanced and valid comment on the nature and prominence of mass media. First, we can only agree that industrialization, urban living, and more recently globalization and digital technologies, have converted mass communication into the primary means of learning about the world and society, leaving one’s print on them, and building one’s identity. The mass media, therefore, provide both the material and the channels for the construction, transmission and maintenance of culture. Buckingham, however, underlines the nature of media content as a representation and not as “transparent windows on the world”, and also stresses the indirect communication and selective versions of the world provided by the media (2003, p. 3). This inevitably raises concerns over the ability not only of young people, but of any member of society, to understand the characteristics, content and role of the mass media on one hand, and the capacity to access and use the media as an arena to voice their own opinions and to conduct a meaningful dialogue with others. Separating the understanding and the use of the media would be a misguided step.

Another question regarding Buckingham’s position concerns the extent to which people are aware of the broad implications of the media’s influence on their lives and how the public is reflecting on them. Since the views of protectionists or the ‘moral majority’ often take the front seat, the public debate may fail to address critical aspects of the mass media in modern society.

Traditional social institutions like the family, the church and the school may refuse to recognize the mass media’s growing influence and attempt to restore traditional relations of power, to denigrate the mass media, instead of adapting to the new conditions. The ordeals of media education initiatives and activists indicate that the predominant response is one of opposition and reluctant acceptance rather than openness, cooperation and accommodation, and this signals not just a reactionary response by traditional bastions of social order, but also further setbacks for media education. Tanya: for readers of this, it may be important to add Buckingham's optimism in his views towards 'a new paradigm.' I think his discussion about the move 'beyond protectionism' that outlines the changing views on youth's relationships with media will garner supporters for the media education movement.

Key Themes and Ideas


Media literacy draws on the concepts of the larger critical literacy movement, begun in the latter half of the twentieth century, which stresses the expansion of the term literacy beyond just the interpretation and construction of meaning. Critical literacy emphasizes the socio-cultural, political and historical contexts within which the process of meaning-making is embedded and hence influenced. Media literacy teachers help students understand and explore various themes such as race, gender, class, power and identity, situated in popular culture texts.

Examining Media Representations


Media literacy is a valuable way to explore issues of representation in K-12 classrooms. Students explore representation by examining and deconstructing media portrayals of gender, race, class, sexuality, and disability. Lessons in representation serve to examine how roles are socially constructed and how personal identity is shaped in political, historical, and cultural contexts which include an examination of issues of power and hegemony. Representation can be explored in meaningful ways by: using examples from various historical periods and making connections to their socio-historical context; investigating the economics behind representations, recognizing that different people have different readings of the same text; scrutinizing what is missing from a representation; and inviting students to express their own identities.

General themes discussed in a typical media literacy curriculum may include: journalism and information; advertising, propaganda, and persuasion; representation of race, gender, and social class; and narrative and visual structures and conventions in storytelling for fiction and non-fiction (Hobbs, 2007). The topic of representation explores the relationship between media portrayals and the complex social realities that people like.

Five Core Concepts of Media Literacy


The Center for Media Literacy in Santa Monica, California, created the five core concepts of media literacy, using the Canada's eight "Key Concepts" for media literacy (Pungente, 1989) as a guide. The Five Core Concepts are:

  • All media messages are constructed.
  • Media messages are constructed using creative language with its own rules.
  • Different people experience the same media message differently.
  • Media have embedded values and points of view.
  • Most media messages are constructed to gain profit and/or power. (Thoman & Jolls, 2005, p. 186)

After discovering that many teachers had trouble incorporating the Five Core Concepts into their curriculum, the Center for Media Literacy developed Five Key Questions in 2002 to use alongside the Five Core Concepts. These five questions can be adapted for various age levels.

Core Concept/Key Question 1: All media messages are constructed. [Who created this message?]

This concept acknowledges that media texts are constructed by authors. The final product is not a natural or objective text, rather, it is made up of various elements that was created by authors (writers, photographers, directors, producers, etc.). Many decisions go into the creation of a text, and the audience sees the end result. The audience does not, however, get to see the ideas that were rejected along the way, which could have produced endless variations on the media text. By asking who created the message, students are able to conceptualize both the human element behind the media text and the process of actually piecing a text together (Thoman & Jolls, 2005, p. 192).

Core Concept/Key Question 2: Media messages are constructed using creative language with its own rules. [What creative techniques are used to attract my attention?]

Each media text has its own language, which can be understood through careful consideration of the sounds and visuals that are employed to convey meaning. One of the ways in which students can learn to analyze the language of media texts is by creating their own.

Core Concept/Key Question 3: Different people experience the same media message differently. [How might different people understand this message differently from me?]

Because audience members all differ in backgrounds and life experiences, we are positioned to interpret media texts in different ways. Two people who consume the exact same media text may come away with completely different meanings.

Core Concept/Key Question 4: Media have embedded values and points of view. [What lifestyles, values, and points of view are represented in, or omitted from, this message?]

Media texts are not objective, they all contain values that tell us who or what is important. By virtue of what is omitted, they tell us who and what is not important as well.

Core Concept/Key Question 5: Most media messages are constructed to gain profit and/or power. [Why is this message being sent?] Most media messages are made in order to create an audience so advertisers can market their products. It is important for students to understand this financial motivation in order to discern whose interests are actually being served.

How Media Should Not be Used in Education


In Teaching the Media (1985), Masterman writes a provocative chapter, discusses and critiques four schools of thought regarding the media: media as agents of cultural decline, media as popular art forms, media as aids to learning, and media as agents of communication. Clarifying what media literacy is NOT, he claims that media literacy is distinct (and better) than these traditional approaches to the use of media in the classroom. Masterman's claims are still contested among media literacy educators.

Media and Cultural Decline


First, Masterman discusses the impact of Leavis and Thompson’s book Culture and Environment (1933). This book, which was essentially the first serious discussion of media in regards to education, was essentially an elitist argument suggesting that English educators needed to take on the role of a “bastion of cultural values” (qtd. Masterman, p. 39). The arguments set forward in this book had a powerful effect on the development of English teaching, and the adoption of an academic perspective of cultural resistance. This philosophy towards English education continued, and had a profound effect on America and Britain, and led to both countries long-standing aversion to the types of media educational practices long engaged in by other European countries. Masterman contends that this elitist perspective which Leavis and Thompson put forward was in part due to the economic interests of professors whose career was based on the supremacy of “high culture” and the perpetuation of traditional class and power systems.

Discrimination Skills


Second, Masterman discusses the rise of the view of media as a popular art form. This school of thought took shape among a new generation of educators who liked popular culture forms and did not feel that media was necessarily culturally corrupting. However, this view of thought did not embrace media as acceptable culture; rather, it sought to discriminate between media. This school of thought rose largely from the Newsom Report (1963) which stated, “We need to train children to look critically and discriminate between what is good and bad in what they see” (qtd. Masterman, p. 52). Accordingly, as contended by Hall and Whannel’s The Popular Arts, teachers should endeavor to discriminate between high and low media forms. Further, while this school of thought encouraged greater inclusion of media into classrooms, teachers continued to primarily focus on the idea of defending against the influence of media. Overall, this popular arts movement led to the separation of film from other media and the founding of film as a specialized course of study, and to the subsequent neglect of television and press from academic studies. Finally, this movement failed to produce a philosophy for studying or understanding the media.

Media as Transmission Tool


A third perspective viewed media as aids to learning and disseminators of knowledge and experience. This perspective holds that media can be used in an educational setting as an aid to learning, and that media can be used to link the isolated world of the classroom to out-of-school influences which present diversity of culture and environment. As such, this perspective calls for integrating media with teaching, and the inclusion of media in all subjects. This use of media can serve to draw on students’ own media experiences, and also present a “livelier and more interesting classroom environment” (p. 65). Renee: This perspective is certainly made more complex by the use of certain media literacy videos, whose purpose is to transmit key theoretical ideas from media and cultural studies (i.e., video from the Media Education Foundation). Based on the arguments offered by Eco, I wonder about the design and instructional characteristics of 'media about media.' Perhaps they model analytic skills that help people develop their own capacity to analyze. Or perhaps they supplant critical thinking by replacing it with another type of persuasion?

Communications as an Academic Field


A fourth perspective presented by Masterman suggests that media are agents of communication. Masterman argues against this perspective and the inclusion of media in general Communication Studies programs of study for several reasons. Masterman argues that Communication as an academic field lacks discipline, fails to acknowledge the differences between communication forms in interpersonal and mediated settings, seeks to develop a top-down model of communications, is ideologically driven, and lacks any important findings. In some respects, Masterman’s argument seems to indicate that this perspective is flawed because it is too limited in scope and fails to take into account broader issues.

While such a point is accurate, this position does not take into account developments and growth within the field of Communication Studies nor do they consider the fact that much of modern Communication theory has continued the process of democratization which originally helped to bring media into the educational setting in the first place. Masterman’s consideration of Communication Studies as a quasi-vocational field demonstrates a very limited view which is not representative of the academic field as a whole. Further, his critique of this perspective as ideologically driven seems odd; ideology seems to be a crucial part of all cultural studies. Thus, overall, Masterman provides an overview of several ways of thinking about the media. Masterman’s discussion is not, however, without a perspective of his own.

Political Economy of Media as Necessary Content for Media Education


In Teaching about Television (1980), Masterman positions the teacher as responsible for demystifying (for and with students) the process by which media deliver ideology. However, in his critique of this seminal media education text, Alvarado (1981) points out that the medium itself is a part of ideology rather than a disseminator of ideologies. Furthermore, ideology is only part of the media education project for Alvarado, “it is not enough to analyze the superstructural levels of the media—TV ideology—for it is also necessary to teach about the material and economic bases of the television institutions as it is necessary to teach about the bases of other state apparatuses” (p. 199). According to Alvarado, Masterman devalues teaching the political economy of media because of an assumption that students will find it boring or too hard. Alvarado takes issue with this rationale, suggesting that it proceeds from a disrespect of the student's capacity for interest, from a lack of creativity on the part of teachers (or an assumption of such a lack) in finding ways to connect student interests/discourses with the study of political economy, and, most forcefully, from a pedagogical ideology normalizing a false conceptual split between knowledge and methodology (see below, Teaching Methods as Media as Ideology).

Implicitly, Alvarado’s critique of Masterman calls for media educators to acquire some expertise in political economy of media and to assume the responsibility for leading students to acquire and use knowledge of political economy in their own thinking about media. At the very least, media educators must lead students to pursue questions that necessarily lead to research and facts that allow them to consider the determining influences of the economic base (terrain) on the ideological field.

Teaching Methods as Media as Ideology


Alvarado (1981) warns that the common sense wisdom of everyday teaching practice must be critically analyzed as ideology. The legacy of progressive discourse (e.g. positioning the teacher as facilitator, privileging the learner’s expertise and interests, focusing on experiential learning, etc.) should not be assumed as naturally better than traditional teaching methods. “Political and ideological shifts undertaken by ‘progressivists’ have emphasized questions of method at the expense of a concern with what was being taught” (201). One of the casualties of this retreat from content driven curriculum in media education is the possible exclusion or peripheral placement of political economy content, such as broadcast structure and media ownership (see above, Political Economy as Nescessary Content). Alvarado claims that the separation of method from content is a false distinction of conceptual convenience. Methods should not be chosen on their own merit because their merit does not exist apart from the content they use and the ideology they operate within as they are practiced through particular content. In other words, content and methodology must work in harmony with an awareness of the ideologies they may serve.

This fair warning follows from a critique of Masterman’s seminal text for media education, Teaching about Television (1980). Masterman positions the teacher as responsible for demystifying (for and with students) the process by which media deliver ideology, but Alvarado points out that the medium itself is a part of ideology rather than a disseminator of ideologies. Similarly, teaching methods should be thought of as media with ideological implications. If we always follow student interest and build from student experience, will we encounter key concepts and knowledge necessary for understanding how media operate and produce culture? Is it realistic or even respectful to always subordinate the knowledge and expertise of the teacher? Do we have a responsibility, in addition to facilitating critical and creative faculties, to train students to participate and compete in the current social formation?

Media Literacy and Childhood


Buckingham discusses the debate on the relationship between children and media. He states that there are two very prominent, but contrasting views on the topic. Writes Buckingham (2003), “On one hand, there is the idea that childhood as we know it is dying or disappearing, and that media are primarily to blame for this. On the other, there is the idea that media are now a force of liberation for children – that they are creating a new ‘electronic generation’ that is more open, more democratic, more socially aware than their parent’s generation” (p.19). This difference of opinion is nothing new; media scholars debated the role of media long before it was associated with media literacy.

Is this really killing childhood? The debate rages. On one side, the argument can be made that media is not ending childhood early. This could be equated back to the “Which came first? The chicken or the egg? argument. The argument in this case however, is: do media reflect society or does society reflect media? To be totally cliché – it is true that times have changed and people are indeed exposed to certain elements of life sooner, but when was the last a ten year old was asked to file taxes, pay bills, write TPS reports, or anything of the like? Children are still able to enjoy childhood. As using media does not necessarily make a person media literate, it is the child’s environment that contributes to their awareness level of the media’s role. (Hans: Isn't the concept of "childhood" a creation of the industrial modern age? The idea of having an extended, protected childhood is a relatively new idea - in times past, children 'grew up fast' as well, worked at young ages, etc. Maybe what we are seeing in the media isn't really so new after all.)

However, an alternate argument could also be made, specifically, that the media are showing images, writing lyrics, and posting content that previous generation were not exposed to until much later in life.

Related to this is Buckingham's assertion that media literacy is creating a new generation of media savvy entrepreneurs. While being “children” by viewing channels such as Nickelodeon, Nick Jr., Disney, and Nogn, children are also realizing that not only are shows for them, but so are the commercials. Children are beginning to see the difference in the programming they watch alone and the programming they watch with their parents. This has changed the nature of progrmming and advertising as well; as children as viewed increasingly as "sophisticated, demanding, 'media-wise' consumers" (Buckingman, p. 31), media has adapted as well. (Hans: In what ways has the media adjusted programming or advertising to treat children as "media-wise" kids?)

Still, and argument can be made that this is not a bad thing that will lead to the demise of society because children are beginning to be aware of their surroundings. Creating this ’electronic” generation is making children more socially aware, which will inevitably lead to more sound decisions – involving media or not. Children will be able to understand why certain are portrayed in certain product commercials. They will start to pay attention to the products they buy, channels they watch, and sites they visit. This awareness is not leading children down the path to crime and early pregnancy as critics of media suggest.

Media Literacy in the Home


Buckingham also makes the clarification that one cannot classify children as a homogeneous group. There are many other factors, social factors that influence this classification. One salient point that he makes is that “At least in the UK, research suggests that children are now much more likely to be confined to their homes, and much less independently mobile, than they were twenty years ago; and while parents now spend much less time with their children , they are attempting to compensate for this by devoting increasing economic resources to child-rearing” (Buckingham, 2003, pg, 21).

In this instance, the media are just another outlet for these children to learn. Due to unfortunate home circumstances, they are left alone and feel alienated. The media are not teaching them to be socially defunct or encouraging bad behavior, but they are providing an outlet to children with no other communication at home.

Online Resources for Learning More

  • PODCASTS: Learn about Reel Vision[1], the Boston filmmaking group that works with young people (Episode 15)
  • ORGANIZATIONS: Understand Media [2] European Centre for Media Literacy [3] Alliance for a Media Literate America [4]
  • WEBSITES: Media Literacy Clearinghouse [5] [6]

See also



  • 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.
  • 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

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