The Basics of Media Literacy

An in-depth explanation of media literacy and the concepts behind it.

Throughout our early childhood education, we were taught to be literate by understanding to read words. We learned to recite the alphabet and recognize when these alphabet symbols were combined to create certain words and sounds.

Today, we must learn to be literate with yet another set of symbols: the media. Just as learning to read is a process that allows for improvement over time, such is the case with media literacy.

Media literacy is not an academic skill we learn by studying a book and then being tested. Media literacy is a process in which media consumers (everyone is a media consumer to some degree) learn how to ask questions about the media in hopes of coming to a deeper understanding of it.

The following is a list of questions people can ask themselves about media to better understand it and its influence. The list of questions are organized in a similar manner as those asked by a newspaper reporter researching a news topic: who, what, where, why, and how.

Who sent this message to me? Does the sender have an interest (something to gain) from having sent this message to me? Does the sender hide this interest?

What are the message's embedded values? All media messages are created with the producer's values embedded in it. It's practically impossible to receive a neutral, unbiased media message.

Where was the message placed for my consumption? Does the message reach me as its target market where it was placed? Does it say something about me that I am consuming this message where it was placed? For example, If you read a men's magazine, most of the ads will be for products that appeal to men.

Why was this message sent? Possibly one of the most important of these questions. Why did the media producer find it so important to send me this message? Does the message try to sell me a product or service? Does the message try to sell me a lifestyle? Most media message try sell you one of two things: a product or service, or an ideology.

How do I view this message and might other people view it? Since all media messages have embedded values, people whose values differ from those of the message's producer will have a different interpretation of the message. Because of people's differing backgrounds and world experiences, tot everyone experiences media messages in the same way. This is why you may love a movie, and your friend hates it. This is why you may find something funny, and someone else finds it offensive.

These questions are simply a starting point for understanding media literacy. They mean very little if they aren't applied by experiencing media and using them to further your understand of media messages.

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