Media Literacy

Learning Objectives


11.1  Identify the assumptions and elements of media literacy.

11.2  Identify the skills necessary to practice media literacy.

11.3  Describe the importance of media literacy in identity formation.

11.4  Explain the cultural impact and importance of media literacy.




The point of media literacy, the subject of this chapter, is to promote conscious and critical consumption of the media content we see and hear daily.  As we learned in the last chapter, media have a pervasive influence on our culture. American adults, on average, consume 13 hours  of media a day, including watching television, browsing the Internet, and using mobile devices like smartphones and tablets. There is little question that people in our culture, especially millennials (those born after 1980), define themselves and their generation by their technologies. With so much of our individual identities and our culture’s values shaped by media narratives, it is important that we create a basis for evaluating those messages. We need to be media-literate consumers.



  • Activity: Better Than the Real Thing?

You can do this alone, but it is better as a group activity. If alone, divide a sheet of paper into two halves, left and right. Then, on one side, list all the reasons that professional sports contests are more enjoyable if you see them in person at a stadium or arena. On the other side, list all the reasons they are better if you watch them on TV. Review your lists and determine what you gain and what you lose in each situation. Which situation do you prefer? Why? Which experience do you consider more real, one that is packaged by a content producer and delivered to you or one at which you are an actual spectator? Defend you answer. Can you enjoy a game at a stadium or arena if there is no instant replay on a giant TV screen? If not, why not? If you do this as a group, make it a debate, pro and con for the TV version.

  • Activity: Analyzing the Classics

Take any classic Disney cartoon movie, but The Lion King, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, and Pocahontas are particularly well suited for this activity. Enlist one or a few friends and, paper in hand, write down every instance of racial, ethnic, or gender stereotyping you see. Make it a contest to see who can identify the greatest number of instances. What does this exercise tell you about the fact that content reflects the producers’ realities, that profit is their goal, and that all content is value laden? Bonus Super Challenge! Do this same exercise, but do it with a young child, 7 to 10 years old, and ask her or him questions based on your observations. For example, “What doesn’t Aladdin have an accent but the other people like him do?” Or “Why are the hyenas in The Lion King dark-skinned and speak in African-American and Latino accents?” Talk to them about their responses.

  • Activity: Play a Kids Advergame

Do this alone or with a young child. Search for an online video game hosted by a sugared cereal. Froot Loops ( works, as will Lucky Charms ( Consider the fairness of the sales pitches, both implicit and explicit. Consider, too, if these games pass the TARES Test. If you do this with a child, ask the child what he or she thinks the game is really about




1. Media literacy is based on 3 key concepts. What are they and why is recognizing and understanding each one important in our interactions with media content and the industry that produces it?


Sample answer:  First, media messages are manufactured by people whose values and priorities may or may not reflect ours. The act of editing content or writing scripts requires content producers to make decisions about what should or should not be included in a given narrative. As a result they set the public agenda (with news) and cultivate a specific reality (entertainment). Second, commercial media are businesses; their first priority is turning a profit, not informing or entertaining us. So it is important to remember that these manufactured message may offer entertainment and information, but these are the by-products of content producers’ quest for profit, not their goal. Finally, that content is primarily the product of the content producers’ values. As such, all media contain value messages. We must remember that they are presentations, not representations.


2.      Media literate people know that most media content is polysemic. What does that mean and how does being media literate influence the meaning we make from polysemic content?


Sample answer: Most media content is polysemic, meaning it is legitimately open to different interpretations. Media literate people, then, can make interpretations that best serve their needs. For example, if they choose they can accept the meaning encouraged by the content producer, the intended or preferred reading. It can be fun, for example, to just laugh along with a good comedy sketch on a satirical fake news show on TV. But media literate people are better prepared to make their own meaning by creating a personally meaningful interpretation that differs in some important ways from the one the producer intended. This is their negotiated reading. For example, while laughing at the skit, they can also interpret it as commentary on the failure of government or the media.


Go to the Source

Buijzen, M., and P. M. Valkenburg. (2005). “Parental Mediation of Undesired Advertising Effects.” Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, 49: 153–165.

Christ, W. G. (2006). Assessing Media Education: A Resource Handbook for Educators and Administrators. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Clark, L. S. (2011). “Parental Mediation Theory for the Digital Age.” Communication Theory, 21: 323–343.

Hall, S. (1980). “Encoding and Decoding in the Television Discourse.” In S. Hall, ed., Culture, Media, Language. London: Hutchinson.

Hart, A. (2013). Teaching the Media. New York: Routledge.

Jeong, S., H. Cho, and Y. Hwang. (2012). “Media Literacy Interventions: A Meta-Analytic Review.” Journal of Communication, 62: 454–472.

Kunkel, D., B. L. Wilcox, J. Cantor, E. Palmer, S. Linn, and P. Dominick. (2004). Report of the APA Task Force on Advertising and Children. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Potter, W. J. (2010). “The State of Media Literacy.” Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, 54: 675–696.

Silverblatt, A. (2008). Media Literacy: Keys to Interpreting Media Messages. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Steinberg, S. R. (2011) Kinderculture: The Corporate Construction of Childhood. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.


This organization that maintains this site is a public interest group that works to “support parents’ efforts to raise healthy families by limiting commercial access to children and ending the exploitive practice of child-targeted marketing. In working for the rights of children to grow up—and the freedom for parents to raise them—without being undermined by corporate interests, CCFC promotes a more democratic and sustainable world.” The site is a treasure trove of material and activism.

This is website of the nation’s preeminent media literacy advocacy group. You know it from your text, and you’ve already seen some of the media literacy information it has to offer

The CML is an educational organization that provides leadership, public education, professional development and educational resources dedicated to promoting and supporting media literacy education.