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date: 26 July 2017

Media Literacy

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Communication. Please check back later for the full article.

The concept of media literacy has been circulating in the United States and Europe since the beginning of the 20th century as a means to acknowledge the set of knowledge, skills, and habits of mind required for full participation in a contemporary media-saturated society. The concept continues to morph and change as a result of rapid changes in digital media, mass media, social media, popular culture, and society. There are a number of competing approaches to media literacy in the United States and around the world. But the acquisition of digital and media literacy competences cannot be conceptualized merely as a set of technical and operative skills; rather, these competencies are embedded in a process of cultural change.

Empowerment and protection have long been identified as the two overarching themes in the media literacy education community, reflecting a dynamic and generally productive tension between those who see media literacy education as a means to address the harms, risks, and challenges of growing up in a media and technology-saturated cultural environment and those who see media literacy as a tool for personal, social, cultural, and political empowerment. Contributing to these distinctive perspectives is the rise of a community of scholars and practitioners who conceptualize media literacy as an expansion of literacy, which has traditionally been understood as the sharing of meaning through spoken and written language. Media literacy can also be understood as a form of advocacy or as a social movement, aimed in particular at young adults, children, and parents; many see it as a specialized academic field associated with either media studies or education. A set of key concepts and core principles have been developed as a result of increased contact among members of the media literacy community, through national and international conferences and increased publication in academic journals. These concepts emphasize the relationship between authors and audiences, messages and meanings, and representation and reality. Among educational practitioners and scholars, an interest in media literacy pedagogy has developed to explore how critical analyses of media texts, tools, and technologies are integrated into elementary, secondary, and higher education, as well as in libraries, museums, and other informal learning settings. As media literacy has entered the education and cultural system, a number of policy issues have emerged. The rise of media literacy in Europe, led by a mandate from the European Commission, has exacerbated an interest in examining policy issues that either support or limit the implementation of media literacy education in relation to economic development or the preservation of cultural heritage. Today, media literacy initiatives occurs in many nations; it is evident that differences in cultural values, press freedoms, media systems, education structures, education policy, and media technology all shape the specific direction, goals, implementation, and assessment of media literacy initiatives.