Media Literacy: An Operational Definition

By Elizabeth Thoman
Issue 127, November/December 2004

antennaMedia literacy is an overall term that incorporates three stages of a continuum leading to the media empowerment of citizens of all ages.

The first stage is simply becoming aware of the importance of balancing or managing one’s media “diet”; that is, making choices and managing the amount of time spent with television, videos, electronic games, films, and various forms of print media.

The second stage is learning specific skills of crucial viewing: learning to analyze and question what is in the frame, how it is constructed, and what may have been left out. Skills of critical viewing are best learned though inquiry-based classes or interactive group activities, as well as from creating and producing one’s own media messages.

The third stage goes behind the frame to explore the deeper issues of who produces the media we experience, and for what purpose. In other words: Who profits? Who loses? And who decides? This stage of social, political, and economic analysis looks at how each of us—and, as a society, all of us together—take and make meaning from our media experiences, and how the mass media drive our global consumer economy. This inquiry can set the stage for various media advocacy efforts to challenge or redress public policies or corporate practices.

Although television and electronic media may seem to present the most compelling reasons for promoting media-literacy education in contemporary society, the principles and practices of media-literacy education are applicable to all media, from television to T-shirts, from billboards to the Internet.

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