Plato once proposed to banish all poets from his ideal society because he was extremely cautious of their influence on the minds of people. Other philosophers shared a similar negative outlook. Marx, for example, believed that media was the primary tool for ideologies to control the minds of people.
We now know that not all media is evil, and not all people who create media are trying to control people. Still, it’s hard to deny the powerful influence media can have on society and ignore the fact that this reach has only been increasing in recent decades—thanks to unprecedented technological advancements.
What is Media Literacy?
Media is by definition any platform that can send messages to the general public. Radio, television, newspapers, books, advertisements, blogs, and social media are all examples of this.
Media Literacy refers to a skill that people can learn as the audience of media. It is the ability to recognize different types of media, identify the message they are sending, and figure out why they are sending that message.
This Instagram post by WHO is an example of a form of media:
Why Is Media Literacy Important?
Practicing media literacy can benefit you and the society you live in in three major ways:
It combats misinformation. Misinformation has been running rampant on the internet in recent years, and people are more susceptible to it than ever. One study in 2020 found that misinformation on Facebook got six times more clicks than factual news.
This spread of misinformation can have significant consequences. It can make companies go bankrupt, change the results of an election, or even go so far as to claim human lives. Without media literacy, you are susceptible to taking in misinformation and spreading it.
It makes you less vulnerable to advertisements. Advertisements have a wide range of benefits for society. They provide useful information to consumers about a product, contribute to healthy competition in a market, and help with the circulation of money in a thriving economy.
But due to their inherently manipulative nature, they can also cause a great deal of harm. For instance, they can make you buy things you don’t need, invest your money in a way that’s not smart for you, or exploit your insecurities to make you feel bad about yourself. Practicing media literacy can help you avoid these traps and become a conscious, responsible consumer.
It develops critical thinking. Media literacy and critical thinking share a similar basis, as they are both the practice of using reason and logic to form a judgement about something. Therefore, learning media literacy can put you on the path to become a more capable critical thinker.
Five Questions to Help You Develop Media Literacy
Fortunately, developing media literacy is not a complicated task at all. You can hone your skills simply by asking yourself a series of questions whenever you are exposed to an advertisement, a post on social media, or a news article.
1- Who created this piece of media? Was it an individual or a company? What was their profession? Were they a politician? A comedian? An artist? Knowing the person behind the media can help you understand the context.
2- What is their purpose? Are they expressing their opinions, perhaps trying to change yours? Is their message trying to influence your behavior in a certain way? Are they trying to provide you with unbiased information about something that happened? Are they trying to make you laugh or feel a certain way? Everyone has a goal in mind when they create a piece of media. By investigating that goal, we can understand their intentions better.
3- Who is the target audience? What kind of people would find this message interesting? People in the target audience all share one or more characteristics. For example, they can be similar in age, ethnicity, education, cultural background, or have a shared interest. You can identify the target audience by asking questions like “who would usually come across this?” and “is the language tailored for a certain group of people?”.
4- Do they use enough evidence to support their message? If the media outlet is making any claims, do they back it up with sufficient evidence? Depending on the subject, evidence can be anything from personal anecdotes and common examples to citations of research and statistics. Moreover, see if the type of evidence is appropriate to the topic, e.g. medical articles only usually make claims based on strong scientific evidence.
5- How did the message make you feel? Watch your reactions after being exposed to a piece of media. Did you feel sad, happy, confident, insecure, or maybe angry? Do you think others would feel the same way as you did? If not, why do you think you felt different? The creator of a piece of media might have intended you to feel a certain way, or you might be feeling that way because of your own personal background.
As you can see, learning media literacy is not complicated at all. However, it requires a commitment on your part to stay aware and inquisitive when encountering new information.
If you want to learn more about the fundamentals of media literacy and how you can incorporate it in your daily life, check out these community resources by Mediasmarts.