Media Literacy – what it is and why it matters

What’s in a name? Media literacy, information literacy, digital literacy, news literacy, 21st century literacy, critical literacy – whatever you call it, critical media literacy plays an important role in modern life, possibly even the critical or overarching literacy for 21st century living.

But, what is media literacy?  It’s more than the ability to read and write.  For some, it’s regarded as the fourth pillar of literacy alongside reading, writing and mathematics.

In simple terms, media literacy is the ability to identify different types of media and understand the messages they’re sending.  Furthermore, media literacy provides a framework to access, analyse, evaluate, create and participate with messages in a variety of forms — from print to video to the Internet.

Diagram created by blog author. Definitions adapted from Common Sense Media  and the Center for Media Literacy.

Conversations about media literacy are not new.  They can be traced back to 1963 in America and throughout the 1980s and 1990s in Australia. The 1982 UNESCO Grunwald Declaration on Media Education also helped amplify worldwide discussions.  More recently, the popular term ‘fake news’ (which is not without its flaws), has been widely used and this has increased generic discussions about media literacy.  The term ‘media literacy’ itself is rarely discussed in the general media. Unfortunately, the seemingly endless and sometimes vague terms for media literacy and associated skills dilute the power of meaningful, in depth discussions about media literacy.

Nonetheless, conceptual recognition of the importance of media literacy is growing.  To give some examples:

Since the mid-1990s, many discussions of digital or media literacy have emphasised that young people are ‘digital natives’ – people who have grown up with technology, thus having innate skills with computers and the internet – but there has now been extensive research debunking the digital native myth.  For example, a 2016 Stanford study showed that students at the high school level are not as media literate as we might think.  In the study, they found that students focused more on the content of social media posts with very little critical evaluation or even scepticism of the site content or author reliability.  Young people cannot build their digital skills without support through training and education.  Despite concerns about media literacy, young people are often better at identifying fake news than older people.  Nonetheless, given the new media landscape, widespread conversations about the value and teaching of media literacy for people of all ages, is essential.

‘Students at the high school level are not as media literate as we think.’

Lastly, jobs of the future will require more than ‘hard skills’ – specific knowledge, abilities or skill-sets needed for success in a job.  Increasingly, so-called ‘soft skills’ (transferable skills) such as critical thinking, digital literacy and creativity are deemed valuable.  Media literacy is well-positioned to enhance such skills.  As concerns rise about climate change and other environmental and societal issues, the skills of media literacy, which require students (and adults) to question, investigate and take action will become important.  Young climate activist, Greta Thunberg’s speech at the Climate Action Summit 2019 as well as recent climate change protests (and subsequent criticisms) demonstrate the power of such skills to encourage active citizenship and promote dialogue to address global Sustainable Development Goals.

Education for the future is about more than reading, writing and arithmetic or ‘getting a job’.  It needs to focus on developing the personhood of children, as well as their ability to engage as citizens.  Media literacy has a powerful role to play in encouraging young people to authentically engage and connect with local, national and global ideas and discourses.

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