An Introduction to Media Literacy

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An Introduction to Media Literacy

For centuries, “literacy” has referred to the ability to read and write text. But in the past century, we have replaced text-based discourse with image-based discourse. Most Americans now get most of their information from television, and increasingly, from the Internet. Textual literacy is no longer an adequate measure of one’s ability to understand and use communications media.

“Media literacy” – the ability to critically consume and create media – is becoming an essential skill in today’s world. Media literate individuals are better able to decipher the complex messages they receive from television, radio, newspapers, magazines, books, billboards and signs, packaging and marketing materials, video games, and the Internet. Media literacy skills can help one understand not only the surface content of media messages but the deeper and often more important meanings beneath the surface. Media literacy education seeks to give media consumers greater freedom by teaching them to analyze, access, evaluate and produce media.
Media Literacy Basic Concepts
Media construct our culture.

Our society and culture – even our perception of reality -- is shaped by the information and images we receive via the media. A few generations ago, our culture’s storytellers were people – family, friends, and others in our community. Today, the most powerful storytellers are television, movies, pop music, video games and the Internet.

Media messages affect our thoughts and actions.

We don’t like to admit it, but all of us are affected by advertising, news, movies, pop music, video games and other forms of media. That’s why media are such a powerful cultural force, and why the media industry is such big business.

Media effects are subtle.

Few people believe everything they see and hear in the media. No one rushes out to the store immediately after seeing an ad. Playing a violent video game won’t automatically turn you into a murderer. The effects of media are more subtle than this, but because we are so immersed in the media environment, the effects are still significant.

Media effects are complex.

Media messages directly influence us as individuals, but they also affect our families and friends, our communities and our society. So some media effects are indirect. We must consider both direct and indirect effects to understand media’s true influence.

Media use “the language of persuasion”.

All media messages try to persuade us to believe or do something. News, documentary films and nonfiction books all claim to be telling the truth. Advertising tries to get us to buy products. Novels and TV dramas go to great lengths to appear realistic. To do this, they use specific techniques (like flattery, repetition, fear and humor) we call “the language of persuasion.”

Media construct fantasy worlds.

While fantasy can be pleasurable and entertaining, it can also be harmful. Movies, TV shows and pop songs sometimes inspire people to do things that are unwise, anti-social or even dangerous. Advertising constructs a fantasy world where all problems can be solved with a purchase. Media literacy helps people to recognize fantasy and constructively integrate it with reality.

No one tells the whole story.

Every media maker has a point of view. Every good story highlights some information and ignores the rest. Often, the effect of a media message comes not only from what is said, but from what part of the story is not told.

Media messages contain “texts” and “subtexts”.

The text is the actual words, pictures and/or sounds in a media message. The subtext is the meaning of the message. Example: The text of a magazine ad for McDonald’s may include a picture of a happy family, an ad slogan, and the McDonald’s logo. The subtext may be: I’ll be happy if I eat at McDonald’s.

Individuals construct their own meanings from media.

Although media makers attempt to convey specific messages, people receive and interpret them differently, based on their own prior knowledge and experience, their values and their beliefs. This means that people can create different subtexts from the same piece of media. All meanings and interpretations are valid and should be respected.

Media convey ideological and value messages.

Ideology and values are usually conveyed in the subtext. Two examples: News reports, besides covering an issue or event, often reinforce assumptions about power and authority. Advertisements, besides selling particular products, almost always promote the values of a consumer society.

The human brain processes images differently than words.

Images are processed in the so-called “reptilian” part of the brain, where strong emotions and instincts are also located. Written and spoken language is processed in the cerebral cortex, where reason lies. Is it any wonder that a TV commercial is more powerful than a newspaper ad?

We process time-based media differently than static media.

The information and images in TV shows, movies, video games and music often bypasses the analytic brain and triggers emotions and memory in the unconscious and reactive parts of the brain. Only a small proportion surfaces in consciousness. When we read a newspaper, magazine, or book -- or text on a website – we have the opportunity to stop and think, re-read something, and integrate the information rationally.

Media are most powerful when they operate at an emotional level.

Most fiction seeks to engage our hearts as well as our minds. Advertisements take this further, and seek to transfer feelings from an emotionally-charged symbol (family, sex, the flag) to a product.

Media messages can be manipulated to enhance emotional impact.

Movies and TV shows use a variety of filmic techniques (like camera angles, framing, reaction shots, quick cuts, special effects, lighting tricks, music and sound effects) to reinforce the messages in the script. Dramatic graphic design can do the same for magazine ads or websites.

Media messages reflect the values and viewpoints of media makers.

Everyone has a point of view. Our values and viewpoints influence our choice of words, sounds and images we use to communicate through media. This is true for all media makers, from a preschooler’s crayon drawing to a media conglomerate’s TV news broadcast.

Media messages can be decoded.

By “deconstructing” media, we can figure out who created the message, and why. We can identify the techniques of persuasion being used and recognize how media makers are trying to influence us. We notice what parts of the story are not being told, and how we can become better informed.

Media literate youth and adults are active consumers of media.

Many forms of media – like television – seek to create passive, impulsive consumers. Media literacy helps people consume media with a critical eye, evaluating sources, intended purposes, persuasion techniques, and deeper meanings.

We all create media.

Maybe you don’t have the skills and resources to make a blockbuster movie or publish a daily newspaper. But just about anyone can make a poster or write a letter or sing a song. And new technology has allowed millions of people to make media -- email, websites, videos, newsletters, and more – easily and cheaply. Creating your own media messages is an important part of media literacy.

Our media system reflects the power dynamics in our society. People and institutions with money, privilege and power can more easily create media messages and distribute them to large numbers of people. The rest of us are often shut out of the media system.
Most media are controlled by commercial interests.

In the United States, the marketplace largely determines what we see on television, what we hear on the radio, what we read in newspapers or magazines. As we use media, we should always be alert to the self-interest of corporate media makers. Are they concerned about your health? Do they care if you’re smart or well-informed? Are they interested in creating active participants in our society and culture, or merely passive consumers of their products and services?

Media monopolies threaten democracy.

In a democracy, we need access to information from a wide variety of sources, so we can make our own decisions. When a few huge media corporations control that access, democracy is endangered.

Media reform is a justice issue.

Our media system produces lots of negative, demeaning imagery. It renders many people invisible. It provides too little funding and too few outlets for people without money, privilege and power to tell their stories.

We can reform our media system.

More and more people are realizing how important it is to have a media system that is open to new people and new perspectives, that elevates human values over commercial values, and that serves human needs in the 21st century. All over the world, people are taking action to reform our media system and create new alternatives.

Media literate youth and adults are media activists.

As we learn how to access, analyze and interpret media messages, and as we create our own media, we recognize the limitations and problems of our current media system. Media literacy is a great foundation for advocacy and activism for a better media system.

Specific tools: The language of persuasion

Media makers – particularly advertisers -- use a number of identifiable techniques to inform and persuade media consumers. We can use our understanding of these techniques as specific tools for decoding media messages.

  1. Symbols can be words, designs, places, ideas, music, etc., symbolizing tradition, nationalism, power, religion, sex, family or any concept with emotional content. In media, people and things often symbolize some larger concept.

  1. Hyperbole is exaggeration or “hype”. (For example, “The greatest automobile advance of the century!”) Ads often use “glittering generalities” -- impressive-sounding language that is nonetheless vague and meaningless. This technique seeks to impress the target and make him/her more susceptible to the sales pitch.

  1. Fear. Media often try to make us afraid that if we don’t do or buy something, something bad could happen to us, our families and friends, or our country.

  1. Scapegoating is a powerful technique that blames many problems on one person, group, race, religion, etc.

  1. Humor is a powerful tool of persuasion. If you can make people laugh, you can persuade them.

  1. The Big Lie. Most people want to believe what they see and hear. Lies work -- on cereal boxes, in ads and on television news. According to Adolf Hitler, one of the 20th century’s most dangerous propagandists, people are more suspicious of a small lie than a big one.

  1. Testimonials use famous people or respected institutions to sell a person, idea or product. They need have nothing in common.

  2. Repetition drives the message home many times. Even unpleasant ads work if they are repeated enough to pound their message into our skulls.

  1. Führerprinzip (a term coined by Nazi propaganda chief Josef Goebbels) means “leadership principle,” or charisma. Be firm, bold, and strong; have dramatic confidence; and frequently, combine this appeal with the “plain folks” technique. It’s amazingly effective.

  2. Name calling or ad homonym is frequently used in media. It can be direct or delicately indirect. Audiences love it. Our violent, aggressive, sexualized media teaches us from an early age to love to hear dirt. (Just tune in to daytime talk radio or TV!)

  3. Flattery is based on the idea that if you make people feel good, they are more likely to buy your product. We like people who like us, and we tend to believe people we like. (We’re sure that someone as brilliant as yourself will easily understand this technique!)

  1. Bribery seems to give us something desirable: “Buy one, get one free.” This technique plays on people’s acquisitiveness and greed. Unfortunately, there is no free lunch.

  1. Diversion seems to tackle a problem or issue, but then throws in an emotional non sequitur or distraction.

  2. Straw man builds up an illogical (or deliberately damaged) idea and presents it as something that one’s opponent supports or represents. Knocking down the straw man reduces the opponent and builds up the attacker.

  1. Denial is used to escape responsibility for saying something unpopular. It can be either direct or indirect. A politician who says, “I won’t bring up my opponent’s problems with the IRS,” has just brought up the issue.

  1. Card stacking provides a false context, telling only part of the story, to give a misleading impression. Read the critics’ quotations in any movie ad; not surprisingly, only the compliments are included.

  1. Bandwagon insists that “everyone is doing it.” It plays upon feelings of loneliness and isolation. In the United States, with our incredible addiction to sports, this technique is often accompanied by the concept of “being on the winning team.”

  1. Plain folks. Many advertisers and politicians promote themselves or their products as being of humble origins, common, one of the gals/guys. Unfortunately, this technique reinforces anti-intellectualism, implying that to be “common” is unquestionably good.

  2. Nostalgia. People tend to forget the bad parts of the past, and remember the good. A nostalgic setting usually gives a product a better image.

  1. Warm & fuzzy. Using sentimental images (especially families, kids and animals) to sell products or ideas.

  2. Beautiful people. Using good-looking models in ads to suggest we’ll look like the models if we buy the product. (How many times have you seen this one used?)

  3. Simple solutions. Avoid complexities, unless you’re talking to intellectuals. Attach many problems to one simple solution.

  1. Scientific evidence uses the paraphernalia of science (charts, graphs, etc.) to “prove” something that’s often bogus.

  1. Maybe. Exaggerated or outrageous claims are commonly preceded by “maybe”, “might”, or “could.” You could win a million dollars!

  1. Group dynamics replaces the weakness of the individual with the strength of the group. The atmosphere of live audiences, rallies or other gatherings often carries people away.

  1. Rhetorical questions get the target to say “yes” to preliminary questions, in order to build agreement and trust before the sales pitch.

  1. Timing can be as simple as planning your sell for when your target is tired. In sophisticated propaganda, timing is the organization of multiple techniques in a pattern or “strategy” which increases the emotional impact of the sell.

Deconstructing media

A basic media literacy skill is “deconstruction.” This is the careful and close analysis of a piece of media, looking beneath the surface – the characters, plot, language, etc. – to understand its deeper meanings.

Any piece of media – a magazine ad, a sitcom, a feature film, a TV commercial, or whatever – can be analyzed in this way.
There is no one “correct” way to deconstruct a media example. As mentioned above, individuals construct their own meanings from media. This applies to the deconstruction process as well.
You can use the following questions to quickly deconstruct a media example:

  • Who paid for the media? Why?

  • Who is being targeted? Age? Ethnicity? Wealth? Profession? Interests?

  • What text, images or sounds lead you to this conclusion?

  • What is the text (literal meaning) of the message?

  • What is the subtext (unstated or underlying message)?

  • What kind of lifestyle is presented? Is it glamorized? How?

  • What values are expressed?

  • What tools or techniques of persuasion are used?

  • In what ways is this a healthy and/or unhealthy media message?

  • What related stories are NOT told by this media example?

Creating counter-ads

You can “talk back” to deceptive or harmful media messages by creating counter-ads. These are parodies of advertisements, delivering more truthful or constructive messages using the same persuasion techniques as real ads. By creating counter-ads, you can apply media literacy skills to communicate positive messages, in a fun and engaging exercise.

The simplest way to create a counter-ad is to alter a real ad (magazine or newspaper ads work best) by changing the text or adding graphic elements; just write or draw over the original ad, or paste new materials onto it. (An example: change “Come to Marlboro Country” to “Come to Marlboro’s Graveyard” and add a few tombstones to the landscape.) A counter-ad can also be created by drawing a new image, copying the design and layout of a real ad. Collage techniques work well, too. You can also write scripts for radio or TV counter-ads, and read them to the class. Or take it a step further and record or videotape your counter-ad.
Here are a few tips on making effective counter-ads:

  • Analyze. Look at several real ads and try to figure out why they’re effective. The best counter-ads use the same techniques to deliver a different message.

  • Power. Your message has to break through the clutter of all the real ads that people see or hear. Think about what makes an ad memorable to you. What techniques does it use to grab your attention? Use them.

  • Persuade. Use the same persuasion techniques found in real ads – like humor, repetition, or flattery -- to deliver your alternative message.

  • Pictures. Visual images are incredibly powerful. People often forget what they read or hear, but remember what they see. The best counter-ads, like the best ads, tell their stories through pictures.

  • Rebellion. Advertising targeted at young people often appeals to a sense of youthful rebellion. Effective counter-ads expose misleading and manipulative advertising methods and turn their rebellious spirit toward the corporate sponsors who use them.

  • KISS” – Keep It Short & Simple. Use only one idea for your main message. Focus everything on getting this message across.

  • Plan. Try to think of everything – words, images, design -- before you begin production. Make a few sketches or rough drafts before you start crafting the final product.

  • Practice. If you’re going to perform a radio or TV script (and especially if you’re making an audio recording or video) your cast and crew will need to rehearse. Then, rehearse it again.

  • Teamwork. Working in a team can lighten your workload and spark creativity. Brainstorm ideas as a group. Make sure all members share responsibility for the work.

  • Revise. When you think you’re finished, show your counter-ad to uninvolved people for feedback. Do they understand it? Do they think it’s funny? Use their responses to revise your work for maximum impact.

  • Distribute. Your ideas are meant to be seen! Make copies of your counter-ads and post them around your school. Get them published in your school newspaper. Show your videotape to other kids and adults. Your counter-ad can stimulate needed discussion and debate around media and health issues.

  • Have fun! Making a counter-ad is a fun way to learn about media and health, to be creative, and to express your views. Enjoy it!

 2001 New Mexico Media Literacy Project 6400 Wyoming Blvd. NE, Albuquerque, NM 87109

Phone: (505) 828-3129; Fax: (505) 828-3142; Website:

Directory: ~nutr

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