Fourteen years ago, Kellner and Share (2007) offered this definition of critical media literacy (CML):
Critical media literacy is an educational response that expands the notion of literacy to include different forms of mass communication, popular culture, and new technologies. It deepens the potential of literacy education to critically analyze relationships between media and audiences, information, and power. (p. 60)
Ultimately, CML is the ability to engage with media outside of a consumer perspective and with a critical lens. The Center for Media Literacy provides Five Core Concepts of Media Literacy and Five Key Questions, which can support all citizens in becoming more literate in this way:
- Principle of Non-Transparency: All media messages are “constructed.” Who created this message?
- Codes and Conventions: Media messages are constructed using a creative language with its own rules. What creative techniques are used to attract my attention?
- Audience Decoding: Different people experience the same media message differently. How might different people understand this message differently from me?
- Content and Messages: Media have embedded values and points of view. What lifestyles, values and points of view are represented in; or omitted from this message?
- Motivation: Media are organized to gain profit and/or power. Why is this message being sent?
But who cares? Why is CML important in the 21st century? Here are five reasons based on the above.
All Media Messages are “Constructed.” When former president, Donald Trump ran in 2016, he coined a now famous phrase, “fake news.” When I first heard it, I didn’t think anything of it, because I understood that all news is constructed; however, as he repeated the phrase, I saw what he was doing. He only meant so-called liberal news was “fake.” The reality is…all news is created to provide you with specific information in a specific way. In the 21st century, with so much media bombardment (i.e., social and news), it’s important to acknowledge this simple fact. No matter what you watch or listen to, it is being crafted in a specific way for a specific message. I’m not saying it’s all fake…just that it’s all constructed.
Media Messages are Constructed Using a Creative Language with Its Own Rules. Back in the day, when we were limited to print, news, and popular media, it was a little easier to discern when media used specific rules. For example, commercials were always louder than regular television programming. Print media used specific colors to convey psychological messages: blue is safe; red is passionate; yellow is friendly.
But how can citizens tell an opinion website from one that is based on fact? One way is to check for an actual author with a byline. “Fake” or opinion sites rarely have one. Other strategies include analyzing photos closely. A reputable news site may use a stock photo from years ago, but then social media can pick it up and use it for something else, like when the United States was worried about a “Mexican border police officer who was brutalized.” Turns out this photo was from years ago and used to enact fear about Guatemalans crossing the US border.
Different People Experience the Same Media Messages Differently. The most recent event that exemplifies this third concept is the January 6th insurrection. It was baffling to me how some Americans could view the same event and see the group as “protestors.” When I viewed it, those US citizens looked treasonous and seemed as if they should be immediately arrested. But when you think about how all media are constructed, how media messages are constructed using its own rules, and how all of us are not engaging with the same media, well, it’s easy to see how someone could view this differently. And that is a reason why understanding these concepts is important, especially for this era. How can you have a conversation with someone if you don’t have empathy for how they view media and the world, in general?
Media Have Imbedded Values and Points of View. ALL media have a specific perspective with which they want you to align. ALL media. I think by now we know this to be true. Fox News, for example, is much different than Vice News. It’s not just important to know this, though. When is the last time you engaged with a different news source than you’re used to? My husband, for example, used to listen to Rush Limbaugh, in addition to other sources. I always wondered why? His answer was so that he could hold conversation from a point of understanding with his conservative co-workers. I would also add that it’s important to have a well-rounded point of view of all topics. If you only listen to one source, then you’re bound to become biased in your thinking.
Media are Organized to Gain Profit and/or Power. Did you know that “15 billionaires own America’s news media companies”? Rupert Murdoch, alone, owns 21st Century Fox and 120 newspapers across five countries. Think about that for a second. Knowing this one fact should change how you perceive you’re receiving information. Is it fair? Is it unbalanced? Is it unbiased? Probably not. Any decision a billionaire makes about what’s shown through media is a business decision. A billionaire is going to do what makes him more money. So, what does that mean about the media we consume?
I hope you’ll take these five core concepts seriously. Maybe you could even practice using one each week. For example, you could try to determine what creative language is being used via TikTok or your favorite app. There’s a reason you may have a positive reaction to that Netflix sound when you open it.