Media Literacy: All things to all men

I recently got the opportunity to co-teach a class for this semester on Media Literacy with Youth Rights Media, a non-profit in New Haven, CT. I have to admit I didn’t fully understand their mission for a while; as I understood it, it was an after-school program designed to teach kids media production and civic advocacy. It goes a bit beyond that, but all the ideas flow very nicely together. Here’s one of their projects (they usually produce one documentary each year).

Youth Rights Media was founded in 2000 by a pair of Yale law students and an American studies student, who were looking for a way to educated teens on their rights for encounters with the police. You see, New Haven has a rather ugly history of racial profiling,  and minority teens faced the problems of

[Connecticut’s] spending on incarceration, the racial disproportionately in its juvenile and criminal justice system, and the percentage of youth incarcerated in adult facilities.

Over time, they’ve addressed other issues, all while teaching how to analyze, encourage and facilitate these discussions in the community. So, YRM is about empowerment, providing young people with the understanding and ability to express issues which affect them directly, especially when they’re used to not having a say. Media literacy is major part of this; public discourse and “common knowledge” is shaped by media products in a technologically mediated society. These products are the work of enterprising corporations and (occasionally) public-interest groups, all of which have various agendas, which sometimes satisfy the revenue driven interests of said corporations (think the NRA and it’s ties to the American Legislative Exchange Council).

Media studies and media literacy are complementary topics – literacy is a basic skill which is bolstered by further study. To digest and produce messages, we have to have an understanding of the medium. There are numerous working definitions for media literacy. The Center for Media Literacy has one which emphasizes the educational aspects:

Media Literacy is a 21st century approach to education. It provides a framework to access, analyze, evaluate, create and participate with messages in a variety of forms — from print to video to the Internet. 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.

I think I’ve mentioned NAMLE‘s definition before, it’s a little more rigorous:

– Media refers to all electronic or digital means and print or artistic visuals used to transmit messages.
– Literacy is the ability to encode and decode symbols and to synthesize and analyze messages.
–  Media literacy is the ability to encode and decode the symbols transmitted via media and the ability to synthesize, analyze and produce mediated messages.
–  Media education is the study of media, including ‘hands on’ experiences and media production.
–  Media literacy education is the educational field dedicated to teaching the skills associated with media literacy.

Media literacy as a grade-school curriculum or even a discipline is far less popular in the US than it is in other English-speaking countries, an irony only highlighted when you realize the US media industry has the largest reach (with an incredibly homogenous concentration of ownership) and that other countries began their media literacy programs as a way to combat that foreign influence. In fact, it raises the curious question of why? Especially in a country where the media industry comprises “20,620 companies generating $95.4 billion in revenues in 2010” in film and music alone, notwithstanding the journalism, publishing, communications, advertising, and public relations industries, all multi-billion dollar industries in their own right.

Ultimately, media literacy provides necessary critical thinking skills to help youth and other citizens become more engaged audiences who can more skillfully mediate the impact of messages, the intentions of a producer, and the agenda of any cultural elite, who have always had those resources on hand for whatever aims they desire. It also alerts youth and citizens to their abilities in engaging new media and production tools to promote personal, community, and civic goals to potential audiences. I believe training others in media literacy is about as altruistic as you can get, because it’s one of the most useful and relevant forms of education for today.

My own classes at The New School start up again tomorrow, I’m especially excited that I’ll be taking Nitin Sawhney‘s Civic Media & Tactile Design course, which deals with participatory culture and DIY media in the interests of social change, much in line with the ideas behind YRM.


Kubey, R. “Obstacles to the Development of Media Education in the United States.” Journal of Communication 48, no. 1 (1998): 58–69.

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