Media Literacy

Media literacy refers to the ability to interpret and understand how various forms of media operate, and the impact those media can have on one’s perspective on people, events or issues. To be media literate is to understand that media are constructions, that audiences negotiate meaning, that all media have commercial, social and political implications, and that the content of media depends in part on the nature of the medium. Media literacy involves thinking critically and actively deconstructing the media one consumes. It also involves understanding one’s role as a consumer and creator of media and understanding the ways in which governments regulate media.

Media Icons
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Information Society

The rapid development and proliferation of information and communications technologies (ICT) at the turn of the 21st century heralded the development of a new kind of society. In this information society, the production and exchange of information is a key feature in both social life and the economy.

While the first half of the 20th century saw the dominant form of economic production shift from agricultural to industrial, the second half was characterized by a shift toward the production, distribution and manipulation of information. These changes resulted in what many have referred to as a post-industrial society, which is typified by a “knowledge economy” or “digital economy.”

In the 1950s and 1960s, technology and technological systems were increasingly seen as key to the creation of wealth and the direction of social development. Working in this vein, Canadian communications theorist Marshall McLuhan pondered the ways in which electronic media extended the human senses and eliminated the barriers of space and time to create the experience of living in a “global village” (see also Globalization).

Not that long ago, people used televisions and radios, bought print newspapers and magazines, had a device just for telephone calls, went out to the cinema and played video games on a console. But a growing percentage of Canadians — especially younger Canadians — get all that media through their phones, tablets or computers. A related development is the role of media companies in distributing content. You might watch programs on a Samsung TV, but Samsung plays no role in what you choose to watch. However, if you watch posts and videos from traditional outlets on platforms like Facebook, Twitter or YouTube, their algorithms play a huge role in determining the content that shows up in your feed.

It therefore becomes important for people to develop an understanding of how media operates and affects people both consciously and unconsciously. As Cathy Wing, co-executive director of the media literacy organization MediaSmarts has explained, “Young Canadians aren’t just passive consumers of media anymore — they’re broadcasters too. It’s harder than ever to tell the difference between accurate information and advertising, misinformation and parody, and it’s easy for any of us to inadvertently spread false information” (see also Fake News a.k.a. Disinformation in Canada).


Key Concepts in Media Literacy

According to the media literacy organization MediaSmarts, there are five key concepts in understanding media literacy: 1) media are constructions; 2) audiences negotiate meaning; 3) all media have commercial implications; 4) all media have social and political implications; and 5) the content of media depends in part on the nature of the medium.

Media are Constructions

To be media literate is to understand that every piece of media is a construction. Every television show, online video and article shared on social media was thought of, created and distributed by many people. Think of a building: when it is under construction, the workers, scaffolding, tools and equipment used to create it are all visible. Once the construction is complete and the building opens, all those things disappear. Creating media is a similar process and a wise consumer always keeps that in mind.

Audiences Negotiate Meaning

People have unconscious and conscious biases that feed into their decision-making process. When looking at a claim about a controversial issue, consider what or who the claim includes, what or who it leaves out, and what assumptions the creators might have made. Media literacy involves actively deconstructing the media one consumes. Ask yourself: Who made it? Why did they make it? What beliefs are the creators expressing?

It takes two hands to clap, but if the first hand is media, the second hand is the audience. It is important to look critically at the assumptions and biases that may guide one’s thinking, as well as the ways in which one’s age, gender, race, nationality and personal beliefs can lead to formulating certain conclusions. Would someone in a different situation see it differently?

Commercial Implications of Media

Media is tightly connected to companies and people trying to make money. When commercials come on during a television show, or when ads play before online videos, we will be aware that the ads are trying to sell things. But what about the platform and distribution itself? Social sites like Snapchat, YouTube and Facebook are all run by companies that can manipulate what you see in order to maximize profits.

Ask yourself how a company might make money from your media consumption. If it doesn’t have a clear commercial purpose, does the creator want you to believe a political or religious point of view? How do these factors influence what you’re consuming?

Social Media
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Social and Political Implications of Media

When it comes to big decisions, such as who you will vote for in an election, you might never see the candidates in person. That means everything you know about them is “mediated” through television, radio, the Internet, etc. Ask yourself who is presented in a way that makes them look good? Who is shown to look bad? Why did the people who made what you’re consuming make it the way they did? What conclusions do you think they want you to reach?

Once you’ve figured this out, try to see what techniques they used to do it. A video game might do it by deciding who the bad guys are, while a film might use lighting and camera angles to subtly make some people look more appealing than others.

The Nature of Media Helps Determine Content

Marshall McLuhan often talked about the differences between “hot” and “cool” media. Hot media includes radio or print, where the consumer has a low level of sensory involvement. Cool media includes television and telephones, which involve the consumer’s senses more directly. McLuhan, who died in 1980, famously said the “medium is the message.” He meant that the platform on which you consume the content shapes the content so profoundly that it creates a new form of awareness.

Online media switch between these hot and cool modes constantly. Scrolling through one’s social media timeline, for example, may involve communicating with others, watching videos, listening to podcasts or reading news articles. Some of the media is made by your friends and family and some is made by corporations or political parties, but it all rolls by on the same levelling platform and device. The social medium is now the message.


Media Convergence and Vertical Integration

Thinking about media ownership is increasingly important as more of our communications are filtered through media. Even a government-owned media company like the CBC still relies heavily on private media companies like Google and Instagram to deliver its content to people.

Private media companies can buy other companies offering similar services (see Media Ownership). They can also consolidate into gigantic entities by owning companies that carry out other parts of the work. This is called media convergence. A single corporation can own one company that produces content, another company that distributes the content, another company that reviews and/or advertises the content, another company that manufactures ancillary products related to that content, still more companies that distribute and sell those products, and so on. This is called vertical integration. It allows corporations to simplify and control the processes involved in producing and selling content, while also concealing their role in these various stages from consumers.

The Walt Disney Company, for example, owns the amusement parks and movies featuring the Disney name. It also owns, in whole or in part, 21st Century Fox and Pixar, the Star Wars and Marvel brands, and several TV networks such as ESPN, A&E, Lifetime, The History Channel and Viceland. On social media, Facebook says billions of people use the site regularly and the company has also bought Instagram, WhatsApp and Oculus VR, giving the same company huge reach.

Government Oversight

It is important to understand the role that government plays in regulating media and media ownership. In Canada, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) is an administrative tribunal that regulates and supervises broadcasting and telecommunication systems in Canada. Its mandate is to ensure broadcasting and telecommunications serve the Canadian public. It reports to Parliament through the minister of Canadian Heritage and Multiculturalism. However, it currently does not regulate things like Internet websites, newspapers, magazines, or the quality or content of radio and TV programs. The CRTC issues licenses that permit companies to broadcast in Canada and to run the telephone system. It makes decisions on mergers, acquisitions and changes of ownership in the broadcasting sector and encourages competition.

The CRTC tries to ensure that Canadians can create content on the platforms it oversees, and that such content reflects Canada’s languages, cultures and the concerns of Indigenous peoples. One tool it uses is a content quota, which requires that a certain percentage of music played on radio stations is Canadian and that television channels show local news and local programming. This is called Canadian content, or CanCon.


Critical Thinking and the “CRAP Test”

To think critically means to analyze information in an objective way in order to make a good judgment about it. The Critical Thinking Consortium says, “thinking critically is a way of carrying out these thinking tasks, just as being careful is a way of walking down the stairs.”

Critical thinking also means setting out clear criteria for a decision. Asking a question like “What’s the best hockey team?” will never lead to an objective answer. It takes the inclusion of clear criteria, like which hockey team has won the most Stanley Cups, to get an objective answer (the Montreal Canadiens). The criteria can then be changed — for example, by adding total games won, or most goals scored, or the team with the biggest fan base — to refine the results and create a more convincing, objective answer.  

Another way to think critically about media is to use what’s called the “CRAP Test.” In this context, CRAP stands for currency, reliability, authority and purpose/point of view.  When analyzing media, one should ask:

  1. How current is the information? Has it been updated recently? Does it take into account any major events or developments? Is it current enough for the research you are conducting?
  2. How reliable or trustworthy is the information? Who or what is the ultimate source of the information? Has it been peer reviewed? Is there a bibliography or reference list that can be used to verify the sources?
  3. Is the author of the information credible? Is the author a recognized individual or organization with an established background on the topic? Can they be contacted to verify their claims? Do they have a publisher or sponsor, and if so, what is their reputation and experience in this area?
  4. Is the author’s purpose or point of view objective or subjective? Is the information presented in a way that seems to be arguing a point or promoting an agenda? Can the information be verified through cross-referencing with its sources?

One must always think critically when searching for the answer to a question. Which of the results are ads and which are independent sources? Do they have a political agenda? One should always study the source and draw one’s own conclusions.


Further Reading

  • Rodney H. Jones and Christoph A. Hafner, Understanding Digital Literacies: A Practical Introduction (2012).
  • James Potter, Media Literacy (1998).
  • Stanley J. Baran, Introduction to Mass Communication: Media Literacy and Culture (1999).
  • Susan Wiesinger with Ralph Beliveau, Digital Literacy: A Primer on Media, Identity and the Evolution of Technology (2016).
  • Julie Smith, Master the Media: How Teaching Media Literacy Can Save Our Plugged-In World (2015).
  • Art Silverblatt, Jane Ferry and Barbara Finan, Approaches to Media Literacy: A Handbook (1998).
  • Gunther Kress, Literacy in the New Media Age (2003).