Perspectives on Media Literacy I: old and new definitions

Note: This short blog post is written and published as part of my participation in the LiDA104 open micro-course on Critical Media Literacy and Associated Skills.

picture of student holding a

It has been more than 25 years since the Aspen Media Literacy Leadership Institute got together and crafted one of the most widely-known definitions of media literacy:

[…]the ability to access, analyze, evaluate and create media in a variety of forms

This embracing definition of media literacy stills holds strong these days, but it has gradually lost some of its mojo in light of how media has continued to shape our lives and become increasingly important to understand our world and sociopolitical context.

Navigating the current media landscape still requires us to master all of the skills named in the the original definition. However, aggravating problems —such as overabundance of information— or complex environments —such as corporate and intellectual-right interests over media production— have shaped the way we use and need those skills today.

They are necessary, but not sufficient.

In 2003, the Center for Media Literacy (CML), through their MediaKit, revisited and expanded on Aspen’s definition, acknowledging the strong ties between media literacy and education and highlighting its role in forming engaged citizens of the 21st century.

Their powered-up definition encompasses these three formulations:

  1. It is an 21st century approach to education
  2. It provides the framework to access, analyze, evaluate and create media in a variety of forms, from print to digital.
  3. It builds an understanding of the role of media in a society as well as essential skills of self-expression required to become a citizen of a democracy.

I personally prefer this new definition because I believe it addresses two crucial issues that maybe weren’t as prevalent when crafting the original.

  1. The first point addresses the fact that media literacy has always been about education. This might have been implicit in the first definition. However, because the  amount of media and creators has exploded with the expansion of internet access, understanding media has become critical to understanding and living in the 21st century. Media literacy is not reduced to a matter of personal responsibility, it now involves educational systems which need to find creative ways to teach children and adults how to navigate critically the media-rich digital landscape. Media literacy has become a 21st century skill. A required know-how to live freely in a world of fake news, targeted ads, the attention-economy, and social media hyper-interaction.
  2. The third point asks us to adopt an external perspective of media, to understand media as a phenomenon and not only its inner workings. Think about it: it would be impossible to critically evaluate media if we are not aware of how media shapes and impacts a society. The definition goes one step further. It implies that we also need to apply this critical optic towards media when we are creating it. It embeds our capacity to create media with the task of being responsible and accountable about the consequence of our creations. And it centers these abilities as crucial to live in a democracy that asks its citizens to inform and be informed.

In contrast with the original definition, the approach from the CML seems to become more relevant every day. It is still true that we need to have essential skills to understand and create media. It is still true that media literacy and media education are basically the same thing, and that media education should be a fundamental piece of any educational system. And now, more than ever, it is still true that we need to be responsible about the media we create, publish and share.

Thanks for joining!


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