Getting savvy about media literacy

Why a media-literate population is essential for a healthy democracy

Young teen age boy using a tablet while wearing headphones

Media consumption has escalated in the last 40 years in much of the world.

First came 24-hour news and a massive increase in the number of TV channels and radio stations. Then the World Wide Web provided an ever-growing library of information.

Now, smartphones give us access to media 24/7, with algorithms and artificial intelligence (AI) tools often choosing what we read or watch next.

This leads to the average person spending a lot of time online – one estimate says 3 hours and 41 minutes a day; another is as much as 6 hours and 43 minutes.

And that doesn't include any time we spend consuming traditional media like newspapers, radio, and broadcast TV (remember those?).

Rise in publishing

The upsurge in media consumption has coincided with a rapid rise in the number of sources of information.

Now anyone – or any thing (AI) – can publish, whether through a website, blog, or social media platform.

This opens up many opportunities and gives us access to lots more information.

But it also makes it much harder to navigate the media landscape, especially since so much of the landscape has been contaminated by things such as disinformation and AI-generated "deep fake" videos and images.

How do we tell fact from fiction? Assess the credibility of sources? Make sure we get all sides of a story? Escape our echo chambers?

Media literacy helps us do all of this and more. In this article, we explore what it is, why it's important, and what we should do to forge a media-literate population.

News Anchor, David Foster on camera in the main studio newsroom of Al Jazeera English in Doha, Qatar

Key points

  • Media literacy is the ability to understand the role of the media and access, produce, evaluate, and act on all types of communication effectively
  • A media-literate population is critical for a healthy democracy
  • Media literacy isn't about avoiding media or telling people what to think
  • Many children have few opportunities to practice and develop media literacy
  • Researchers say media literacy should be part of every school's curriculum

Defining media literacy

Most of us are familiar with the concept of literacy.

But what is media literacy?

More than just "the media"

Most definitions of media literacy focus on more than what many of us might think of as "the media." Instead, definitions usually cover all types of communication.

And it's not just about the communications we receive – media literacy also involves the messages we create and transmit and our actions as we participate in communications.

Access, analyze, evaluate, create

"I like the definition from the National Association of Media Literacy Education [NAMLE]," says Dr. Michael A. Spikes, Lecturer and Program Director at Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications, Northwestern University:

"The ability to access, analyze, evaluate, create, and act using all forms of communication."

Dr. Spikes adds that a media literate person should know "how to use media thoughtfully as a producer. That's become even more important because, these days, we're not only media consumers, we're also producers of it."

The Center of Media Literacy (CML) definition is similar to NAMLE's. It says media literacy "provides a framework to access, analyze, evaluate, create and participate with messages in a variety of forms."

The CML definition also adds: "Media literacy builds an understanding of the role of media in society as well as essential skills of inquiry and self-expression necessary for citizens of a democracy."

Media literacy in action

So what does media literacy look like in practice?

"For me, media literacy is the ability to think more deeply about the media, to process it, to verify it, and to understand its role in our lives, both negatively and positively," says Dr. Belinha De Abreu, President of the International Council for Media Literacy (IC4ML) and founder of the International Media Literacy Research Symposium.

"It's also about understanding who's omitted from messages," she adds.

"This is even more important in the digital age as information is streamlined based on our likes or dislikes and the way we search.

We're not only media consumers, we're also producers of it
Dr. Michael A. Spikes

"We don't tend to find other pieces of information, opposite opinions, or even fill in the gaps in our knowledge because we're 'thrown' into these spaces."

Media literacy vs. news literacy

"News literacy is a subset of media literacy," explains Dr. Spikes.

"It uses news media as a platform for developing the skills and practices journalists use to judge the credibility of information to teach news consumers how to adopt the same practices when judging the information they consume as well."

Why media literacy is important

"A healthy democracy depends on informed citizens," says Sue Ellen Christian, a Presidential Innovation Professor in Communication at Western Michigan University and author of Everyday Media Literacy.

"Practicing media literacy is a critical part of being informed with accurate, authentic information."

Information overload

"With so many information sources available today, media literacy can assist people in spotting trustworthy sources and cutting through the clutter to find the real story," adds Dr. Aondover Eric Msughter, Lecturer in the Department of Mass Communication, Caleb University, and co-author of the article "Social media literacy: fake news consumption and perception of COVID-19 in Nigeria."

"It enables people to comprehend the messages being conveyed to them."

Professor Christian agrees: "Media literacy is more important than ever given the advent of digital media in all its forms – and all those yet to come.

"We are immersed in digital news, information, entertainment, education, services, sales pitches, and more. We have more digital devices each year through which to consume that media.

"It's nonstop and it's not going to let up."

Practicing media literacy is a critical part of being informed with accurate, authentic information
Professor Sue Ellen Christian

Yet navigating the media wasn't always so complicated, as Dr. Spikes highlights:

"In the past, much more of the media we consumed was created by a number of gatekeepers. Consumers just tuned into television stations or radio stations and listened to programming that producers and other gatekeepers created for them.

"Now more and more of the media we consume is created by those consumers."

Blurred lines

"There also used to be distinct categories or genres of media that made it easy for us to know if something was meant to inform us or entertain us. Now those lines are getting blurred."

We have a lot of newsmakers who are opinion-makers – they're not actually journalists
Dr. Belinha De Abreu

Dr. Spikes highlights how this can happen with news media:

"People might see something that is labeled as a news article or report online and think it is intended to inform them, but in reality, it may be trying to influence them.

"That simple label of news doesn’t always mean that what the person sees might not include opinion infused with untrue information."

Dr. De Abreu agrees: "I tend to find that we have a lot of newsmakers who are opinion-makers. They're not actually journalists.

"Also, it's important to note that younger people are not consuming news the way we're used to watching or hearing it. They're getting their news from social media."

All this means we need to be more intentional about what we want to get out of the media we consume. But this is difficult in the digital age:

"We seem to leave critical thinking behind when we access digital spaces," says Dr. De Abreu.

"We find that people are very much invested in the way in which they receive information without necessarily understanding where it came from, or the context and reliability of their sources."

Practicing media literacy

Media literacy is something we can develop.

"The beauty of media literacy is that provides an easy-to-grasp foundation that, with practice, gets more sophisticated and more useful," says Professor Christian.

Slowing down

A good first step to practicing media literacy is to be more mindful of our media use.

"Media platforms tend to emphasize speed over thoughtful uses of that information," says Dr. Spikes.

"So the first thing we can do is slow down and ask questions like:

  • "Where did this information come from?
  • "How did the person know this?
  • "What evidence are they presenting to me that tells me like they know what they're talking about?"


We must also listen more, says Dr. De Abreu:

"I believe one of the problems we have now is that we don't have a curiosity about what other people are saying.

"Listening more helps give context as to why they believe what they believe and see the world as they see it.

"You may even find there are plausible reasons for their beliefs."

Knowledge, skills, and attitude

"Media literacy is a three-pronged stool of knowledge, skills, and attitude," adds Professor Christian.

"The knowledge focuses on the media industry, media theories and concepts, and media-related facts.

"The skills include using reverse image searches and geolocation tools to verify images and videos, as well as, for example, the ability to de-construct media messages to see how they are designed for a purpose.

"The attitude is the life-long, life-changing outlook on our ever-present media world. It centers the self as a critical, empowered consumer."

Manual verification tools

In the article "Cutting through the hype: Understanding the implications of deep fakes for the fact-checking actor-network" published in Digital Journalism, fact-checkers highlight four easy-to-use practices and techniques anyone can use to verify images and videos:

Anonymous woman working on laptop at night

1.Reverse-image searches

A reverse image search is when you use a tool such as Google Search by Image or Tin Eye to find copies or edited versions of an image. This lets you see when an image was created or first published, and if it's being used out of context.

Decontextualized images are often horizontally flipped/mirrored, so it can help to do this to the source image too.

Cropped shot of female hand holding mobile phone playing video online

2. Frame-by-frame video checks

Video footage can be harder to fact-check than imagery.

However, by watching a video frame-by-frame, you may be able to spot imperfections, glitches, manipulations, or objects that give away information about its origin.

Child sitting at computer

3. Repeat viewings

Watching a video multiple times can help you spot objects and cues that provide information about when and where it was filmed.

For example, vegetation, shadows, and the position of the sun can reveal what time of year it was filmed.

Aeria shot of Heidelberg, Baden-Wurttemberg

4. Geolocation checks

If the location of a video or image isn't included in its metadata, mapping tools such as Google Streetview can be useful to check whether the location matches the description.

In some cases, you may be able to find the exact location if there are enough clues or prominent landmarks in the image or video.

Focused adult sitting at desk in modern library

Media literacy for authors

A rise in low-quality "predatory" journals, "paper mills" that produce fraudulent manuscripts, and AI tools capable of writing entire articles means it's vital for academic researchers and authors to practice media literacy.

We support authors in citing reputable sources during the writing process and choosing reputable journals for their research via initiatives such as Think, Check, Submit.

We're also committed to upholding publishing ethics and research integrity in the journals and books we publish.

Teaching media literacy to children

Born into a digital world, today's children are skilled – but vulnerable – consumers of media.

And despite their high usage of digital tools, they're unlikely to have many opportunities to develop and practice media literacy.

Benefits for all ages

"Media literacy should be integrated into all states' mandatory curricula across all school years," says Professor Christian.

On social media, fake news travels farther, quicker, and with greater impact than true news
Dr. Aondover, Eric Msughter

"You can start with the basics, by asking them to think about what attracts them to the media of their choice," adds Dr. De Abreu.

"For very young children, this will probably be cartoons. You can get them to think about why they prefer one cartoon over the other.

Social media literacy

"On social media, fake news travels farther, quicker, and with greater impact than true news," says Dr. Msughter.

"Therefore, it is essential to teach children how to determine the veracity of the information, how to go past the headline, verify the author's credentials and date, assess the language and tone, and recognize biases.

"Ask them to swiftly find at least one more source that supports their position.

"Or, ask students to follow multiple news stations on social media to observe how numerous outlets present the same story and contrast how the headlines are worded."

"I think the conversation about social media needs to start sooner, in upper elementary grades or middle school [around the ages of 10 or 11]," adds Dr. De Abreu.

"But you can't go into teaching about media saying, 'This is all bad.'

"That will disengage students from having those really important conversations, especially about civic engagement.

"Instead, we need to ask them questions. For instance:

  • "What do they like?"
  • "What is it about this tool that captivates them?"
  • "How does it make them think about certain things?"
  • "What things online or on TV bother them?"

Policymaker and funder roles

We've seen how important media literacy is for a properly functioning democracy. What role should policymakers and funders play in making sure we have a media-literate population?

Measuring media literacy

"We need funding and research to establish a uniform measurement for media literacy skills and knowledge and then to use that to measure the efficacy of media literacy education," says Professor Christian.

"That evidence is the necessary step to allow policymakers and elected officials to see beyond ideologies and institute mandatory media literacy education."

Teacher support

"Teachers who will be educating students need professional development training to teach media literacy," says Dr. De Abreu. "We need support programs for them.

"I also think policymakers need to be a part of the educational process, or if they are going to dictate policy, ensure that an educator's voice is a definitive part of it. Policymakers tend to not be 'on the ground' with educators and their consideration of what an educator's day is like is completely misguided.

"There are many factors that need to be noted such as: What does a teaching day look like for an educator? How are the students each day? What mental health issues are ongoing? What learning disabilities are happening?... and much more."

Theory vs. real life

"Something funders and philanthropists can do is encourage the production and creation of content that has that very specific intent to inform people, such as providing funding for journalism and news projects," says Dr. Spikes.

"Funders can also do more to help support research in the area of media consumption, understanding what new technologies are doing fundamentally to the ways that we take in information and so on.

"Then on the practical side, we should be trying to think of projects that allow people to learn media literacy skills.

"We need to find more opportunities to build bridges between what's going on in the real world and previous research theory."

Closed systems

"Technology advancements will probably have a significant impact on media literacy in the future," adds Dr. Msughter.

"Media literacy instruction will need to change to accommodate new media as they become available, such as virtual and augmented reality."

We need to find more opportunities to get under the hood of these different [social media] technologies
Dr. Michael A. Spikes

However, researching new tech can be problematic, as Dr. Spikes highlights:

"Tech and social media companies need to create more opportunities for research to be done on the platforms themselves.

"These platforms and their incentive structures do not encourage thoughtful use of them.

"Previously, researchers had more access to platforms like Twitter/X, but now a lot of that has been cut off and I think we need to find more opportunities to get under the hood of these different technologies.

"As we see the social impacts of these technologies, I think it's becoming more and more important that we get more open access to them."

Further reading