These days, anyone can write anything online, and while that definitely comes with its blessings, it’s also true that not every source out there is reliable, to say the least—and most of them have an agenda, in one way or another.
It’s a journalist’s duty to keep their own biases and opinions aside, but if you’re media-literate, you’ll know that’s basically impossible—even for the most seasoned, respected pros.
But that’s okay, because there’s something you can do about it. By understanding the different kinds of sources and learning how to interpret information from the media, you can make more wise, informed decisions about how you process and use that information.
What Is Media Literacy and Why Is It Important?
Media literacy is the ability to analyze, evaluate, and understand media sources, whether they are well-known newspapers, cable news shows, or Facebook posts.
It helps us to build an understanding of the media’s role in our society and teaches us to ask the critical questions that are necessary for a democratic society.
Media literacy also provides us with the tools and framework we need to:
- Decode media messages.
- Assess the influence of those messages on thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
- Create new media thoughtfully and conscientiously.
It’s important to note that while media literacy raises critical questions about the media and technology, it is not anti-media. Rather, it seeks to bring enlightenment to consumers of the media and ensure greater transparency.
Instead of trying to silence any voices, media literacy simply provides the tools that help us to determine for ourselves which sources are reliable and how we want to use them.
Who Is Media Literacy For?
Media literacy is a skill for consumers of media messages, but also for those who produce those messages.
It’s just as important for those who create media—which, thanks to our smart phones, is most of us these days—to understand what they are sending out and the impact those messages might have.
So the same questions that we need to ask ourselves as consumers of the media should also be asked when we produce it.
What Are the 5 Key Concepts of Media Literacy?
There are 5 key concepts of media literacy that you should be aware of if you want to become media literate.
1. All media messages are constructed.
First, it’s important to understand that all media messages are constructed, or built, and so we can’t simply take for granted that they must reflect reality as it is.
To say that all media messages are constructed means that someone—a single person or a group of people—constructed them, and they had some sort of intention when they constructed their message.
Perhaps they wanted to inform, persuade, assist, or challenge their audience. Depending on their goal, they’ll use different approaches for constructing their message.
For example, when you post a selfie to Instagram, most likely you’re following some sort of unstated instructions about how your image should look and what it should tell people.
You might not even realize this, but think about the lighting you choose, the filter you change 10 times, or the less-than-natural smile you wear just to get the perfect shot.
Understanding that all media messages are constructed will make you more aware of the messages you consume, as well as the ones you create.
2. Media sources use a creative language with its own rules.
For example, big headlines and text in all caps signalize significance or urgency.
Phrases like “some say” usually mean that sources cannot be named for whatever reason, perhaps because the source is anonymous (why?), does not actually exist, or what’s being reported is simply hearsay.
In films, scary, dramatic music is designed to heighten your fear or feelings of suspense.
By learning to recognize these subtleties, you’ll become a smarter consumer of media messages who knows how to interpret them on their own.
3. Different people experience the same media message differently.
Differences in age, gender, education, cultural upbringing, sexual orientation, and a number of other factors can mean very different interpretations of the same content.
And if you’re the one generating the media, it’s important to keep this in mind because different audience members might respond differently to your message.
Be aware of the diversity of your audience, how it might expand over time, and of any unintended audiences who might find their way to your content (especially when it comes to your own social media).
4. Media have embedded values and points of view.
Because media messages are constructed, they are embedded with the the values and point of view of the creator.
In film and literature, the choice of characters (and their age, race, sex, etc.), setting, and conflicts all reflect who and what is important to the person or people creating the story.
Another prominent example of this concept is the ownership of television networks. Think about who owns your favorite channel. Is it privately owned by an individual? A government organization?
Also keep in mind that the media decides what to publish, as well as what not to publish. For every article you read, there might be at least 5 that didn’t make the cut.
Ray Dalio recently wrote in a LinkedIn post about the problems of “fake news” and “distorted news,” claiming that a recent Wall Street Journal article about Bridgewater Associates was penned by writers who “had a goal and story in mind long before there were any facts.”
In any case, the people behind the media will impact the final message that is received by the consumer.
5. Most media messages are organized to gain profit and/or power.
You’ve probably noticed that many newspapers, magazines, websites, and of course, television programs are sprinkled with ads all over the place.
Because these platforms make money from advertisements, it’s highly possible that some of their content is adjusted to please their advertisers and better reflect their views. Other incentives might include increased website traffic or more subscribers.
However, this certainly isn’t always the case—many publications risk losing advertisers for the sake of integrity, or when they have values that offset incentives.
And now, with the rise of social media as a marketing tool, much of what you post might be used to build a profile of you as a potential customer.
Being aware of this will help you to make better informed decisions about what you click “Buy Now” for, as well as what you post.
What Are Media Literacy Skills?
These 5 skills will help you effectively practice media literacy and become a more responsible consumer of the media.
Knowing how to access the information you want is the first media literacy skill. Do you know where to find fair, reliable sources? Consult tools like the All Sides Media Bias Chart to determine which sources are more biased and which are more neutral.
However, tracking down the answers you need starts with knowing how to ask the right questions.
Asking critical questions and analyzing the creator, content, and intention of each piece of media that you consume will help you determine the legitimacy of a source. You can use the questions in the next section to guide you.
Questions to Ask When Evaluating Sources
Below is a series of questions that will help guide you through an analysis and evaluation of your sources. Download our PDF of questions for evaluating sources for quick reference.
Who is the author/creator of this content?
Is it a company or organization? An individual? What do they do? Are they anonymous? If so, why do you think that is?
What else has the author written, and for whom?
Understanding the authority of the author, their credentials, and any affiliations they have can provide a lot of clues about potential biases.
When was this published?
Is it recent enough to be relevant to your research? If it’s not very recent, is there a chance the information might be outdated and inaccurate?
Evaluate the timeliness of your source to understand how current (and therefore relevant) the information is.
What are the author’s claims?
What kind of evidence does the author use to support those claims? Facts? Statistics? Assumptions? Opinions? Do you agree or disagree with the author’s argument or perspective? Why?
Even if the author doesn’t explicitly use phrases like “in my opinion” or “I think,” it’s possible that they might be presenting opinions or theories in the form of statements that might push you to believe they are facts.
A fact is a statement that can be proven. An opinion might be based on a fact, but it reflects the way a person feels or thinks about those facts.
Whose voices/viewpoints are not being heard?
Do the authors leave out important facts or alternative perspectives? What information might be missing?
If you’re not sure, do a quick search on the topic and see what other viewpoints are out there.
What is your position on this topic?
What evidence (research) can you provide to support your position? Have you looked at any contradictory sources?
Does this source make you reconsider that position?
Using your answers to those critical questions, you can evaluate the source’s legitimacy, understand its intentions, and decide what to do with that information. Is it a source you trust for your research, or will you decide to keep looking?
When conducting your research, try keeping a list or spreadsheet with notes, or even your own ranking system (such as ‘L’ for ‘left, ‘N’ for ‘neutral,’ and ‘R’ for ‘right.’
Being media literate also entails an awareness of the content you create. Do you understand the consequences of what you put out there? Will you take responsibility for those consequences?
Now that you’ve analyzed and evaluated a media source, do you know what to do next? Knowing what to do with the information you consume is perhaps the most important part of this whole process. Will you click “Share” simply because a source confirms your own biases, or will you ignore a source that seems unreliable?
The following resources offer more information about the importance of media literacy, as well as tools that can help you check sources for bias and accuracy.
- Media Literacy Now: Media Literacy Now is a national advocacy organization for media literacy education policy. They support efforts that “prepare young people to be thoughtful, safe, and effective consumers and creators of media.” Their site offers helpful resources and more information about the importance of media literacy.
- WikiNews: According to MediaBiasFactCheck.com, WikiNews ranks among the “least biased” news sources and is high in factual reporting.
- FactCheck.org: This nonpartisan, nonprofit “consumer advocate” focuses on U.S. politics and reducing the level of deception and confusion that surround it. The organization is completely transparent about its funding sources, which are mostly donations from the public.
- All Sides Media Bias Chart: This chart makes it easy to identify political bias in the news. Note that all ratings are based on online content only, and do not include TV, print, or radio content. They’re also not intended to reflect accuracy or credibility, but rather perspective.
Understanding Media Sources
Media literacy is an essential skill to have in the 21st century. With more platforms than ever to make your voice heard, it’s important that you use yours responsibly and understand how to interpret others.
By learning to access, analyze, evaluate, and create media resources, you can stay well informed and develop
Did you find this post helpful? Let us know in the comments below!