Learning Pathway: Critical Media Literacy

The Critical Media Literacy Learning Pathway features background on "What is Media Literacy?" and key concepts of critical media literacy as well as learning activities throughout the Building Democracy for All eBook that promote media literacy learning for students.

Media Literacy Connections by eBook Topics

Topic 1: The Philosophical Foundations of the United States Political System

Topic 2: The Development of the United States Government

Topic 3: Institutions of United States Government

Topic 4: The Rights and Responsibilities of Citizens

Topic 5: The Constitution, Amendments, and Supreme Court Decisions

Topic 6: The Structure of Massachusetts State and Local Government

Topic 7: Freedom of the Press and News/Media Literacy

What is media literacy?

Media literacy’ is defined in a variety of ways. Most commonly it is used as an ‘umbrella term’ that encompasses analysis of mass-media and pop-culture, digital or technology analysis, and civic engagement and social justice action.

Sometimes the terms ‘media literacy’ and ‘media education’ are used interchangeably. Leading global scholar in children’s media cultures David Buckingham sees them as two separate actions, related to each other. He defines:

Media literacy is “the knowledge, skills and competencies that are required in order to use and interpret media” (2003, p.36).

Media education as “the process of teaching and learning about the media” and media literacy as “the outcome – the knowledge and skills learners acquire” (2003, p.4). 

words related to communication and media
Image on Pixabay, free to use.

Interpretation, or evaluation, is a key component of any media literacy work. Sonia Livingstone, of the London School of Economics, notes that "Evaluation crucial to literacy: imagine the world wide web user who cannot distinguish dated, biased, or exploitative sources, unable to select intelligently when overwhelmed by an abundance of information and services” (2004, p. 5). In media literacy work, interpretation or evaluation is the process by which students and teachers dig through their already-existing knowledge in order to share information with each other and build new knowledge. 

In the United States, media literacy is defined as “hands-on and experiential, democratic (the teacher is researcher and facilitator) and process-driven. Stressing as it does critical thinking, it is inquiry-based. Touching as it does on the welter of issues and experiences of daily life, it is interdisciplinary and cross-curricular” (Aufderheide, 1993, p. 2). The student of media literacy learns how to access, analyze, and produce a variety of media texts (Aufderheide, 1993).

Some scholars add the qualifier ‘critical’ to their use of media literacy. Critical media literacy encourages analysis of dominant ideology and interrogation of the means of production; it is rooted in social justice (Kellner & Share, 2007) and explores the “behind the scenes” of ownership, production, and distribution. Critical media literacy is an inquiry into power, especially the power of the media industries and how they determine the stories and messages to which we are audience. 

There are (at least!) three ways to apply the term ‘critical’

Critical analysis: Approach a text from a distance and eliminate emotional response, while exploring why there is an emotional response. Critical analysis is a clinical approach (asking questions). As part of the interpretation/evaluation process, it involves self-reflection: What do I know/believe and how do I know it/why do I believe it?

Media literacy is critical: Six corporations control 90% of all mainstream media in America (Lutz, 2012; Phillips, 2018). Eight-to-eighteen-year-olds fill 10hr, 45min worth of media use into 7hr, 38min time frame (Kaiser Family Foundation 2010). 95% of US teenagers self-report smartphone ownership/access (Anderson & Jiang 2018). Based on quantity of time alone, young people deserve to have formal study of the media in order to better understand that which they are spending so much time. 

Critical media literacy: Engages in process of continuous critical inquiry, diving deeply into questions of ownership, production, and distribution: What is known about the text? How is this known? What is the context for understanding the text? 

Sometimes in media literacy work, the question is more important than the answer. The question is an invitation for students and teachers to work together, to share knowledge, and to build collaboration. Because so much of media analysis is about interpretation, there may not be one absolute answer. In many of the lessons, you will see discussion questions posed without corresponding answers or information; please use this as an opportunity to generate shared knowledge with students and, if further questions arise, to check for additional resources.  

Concepts of Media Literacy

In 2003, and updated in 2007, David Buckingham codified the concepts of media literacy. The concepts are flexible and can be adapted to multiple media. The following are the basic outlines of each concept:

Production: Media texts are consciously manufactured. Addressing production asks questions about how the media are constructed and for what purpose. It is important to explore the ‘invisible’ commercialization of digital media and global role of advertising, promotion, and sponsorship.

Language: Visual and spoken languages communicate meaning; familiar codes and conventions make meaning clear. Digital literacy looks at digital rhetoric, especially website design and links.

Representation: Events are made into stories which invite audiences to see the world in one way and not in others. This concept explores authority, reliability, and bias; looks at whose stories are told and whose are ignored.

Audience: Who is engaging with what texts and how are people targeted? This concept looks at how users access sites, how they are guided through sites, and the role of users’ data gathering (2003, pp.53-67; 2007, pp.155-156).

Apply the Concepts/Engaging Media Literacy: News and Information Evaluation


Additional Resources

Popular press coverage on social media & fighting fake news:

Scholarly works that introduce and apply media literacy:

  • Buckingham, D. (2003). Media education: Literacy, learning and contemporary culture. London, England: Polity Press.
  • Buckingham, D. (2007). Beyond technology: Children’s learning in the age of digital culture. London, England: Polity Press.
  • Buckingham, D. (2019). The media education manifesto. London, England: Polity Press.

Scholarly work with news analysis component:

  • Higdon, N. (2020). The anatomy of fake news: A critical news literacy education. Oakland, CA: University of California Press. 

Young adult work on how to make sense of fake news:

  • Otis, C.L. (2020). True or false: A C.I.A. analyst’s guide to spotting fake news. New York, NY: Feiwel and Friends. 

Media Literacy Project Team

Allison Butler, Senior Lecturer & Director of Undergraduate Advising, Director of Media Literacy Certificate Program, University of Massachusetts Amherst

Ifat Gazia, Graduate Student, University of Massachusetts Amherst 

J.D. Swerzenski, Graduate Student, University of Massachusetts Amherst 

Yuxi (Cecilia) Zhou, Graduate Student, University of Massachusetts Amherst 

Natalie Passov, Undergraduate Student, University of Massachusetts Amherst

Eleanor Sprick, Undergraduate Student, University of Massachusetts Amherst

Benjamin Mendillo, Undergraduate Student, University of Massachusetts Amherst

Kyle Balis, Undergraduate Student, University of Massachusetts Amherst

Kendra Sleeper, Undergraduate Student, University of Massachusetts Amherst

This content is provided to you freely by EdTech Books.

Access it online or download it at https://edtechbooks.org/democracy/medialit.