Media Literacy. It’s a strange term. What does it even mean?

According to the traditional definition, one that finds its roots in the 1992 Aspen Media Literacy Leadership Institute, media literacy is the ability to access, analyse, evaluate and create media messages.

But what does that actually mean?

Media Literacy is really, simply about understanding the processes and routines of the media. It is about understanding how those processes and routines might affect the messages that are delivered to us. It is about more active participation in the media messages that surround us. And it is about more informed choices.

How is it about all this? Let’s try to understand that by breaking up the term ‘media literacy’, and understanding these parts.


First, let’s look at the term ‘media’.

This itself can be confusing because there are two ways in which we use the term ‘media’.

We use it to mean the plural of the term ‘medium’: the means of mass communication. So in this sense, the word refers to the print medium, the broadcast medium and the internet. It refers to the vessel through which any message is delivered. The media here is the pipe. It is the container that delivers a given message.

So if you are expecting a delivery of say, 50,000 packets of potato chips, and it is delivered to your doorstep by a truck—media in this sense refers to that truck, not the potato chips.

The print medium, which is the oldest form, includes pamphlets, newspapers and books. Broadcast includes TV and radio. The Internet includes all this and more. Media, in this sense, also refers to  billboards, apps and photographs.

Now, let’s move on to the second meaning.

The second sense in which we use the term ‘media’ is this: we use it to refer to the mass communication itself. We use it to refer to the content we consume, in other words, the message that is delivered.

So in this sense of the term, when we are expecting a delivery of 50,000 packets of potato chips, media refers to the potato chips, and not to the vehicle through which they are delivered.

In this respect, we can divide the media into the news media, the entertainment media, the advertising media. This also includes public relations and propaganda machinery.

What’s Devil’s Advocate and The Times of India? An example of news media. What’s Dabangg, CID, the Big Bang Theory, or the serials we see? An example of the entertainment media. TV commercials and most messages on roadside hoardings are advertising.

So these are the two overlapping ways in which we understand the term media. No wonder it can be confusing.

What is more, however, is that the delivery vehicle sometimes affects the content and vice versa.

So can you imagine sitting in front of a TV screen and listening to the dialogues of your favourite characters as the screen runs blank? Or can you really say that watching a film on your mobile phone is the same as watching it in the theatre or on TV or even your mobile phone?

So medium affects content. And content affects medium. Together, and separately, they give us the media.


Now, what about the term ‘literacy’? In its most bare-bones definition, literacy is the ability to read and write. But expanded, it means being able to make sense of the world around us.

For example, in the way we live today, if we weren’t literate, it would mean that we would not be able to fill applications, at a college or at the bank. It would mean we would not be in a position to read and sign documents such as an appointment letter. It would mean no social networking such as Facebook or Twitter. It would mean no text messages, even.

So literacy really is not just about reading and writing. It is about all the conveniences, benefits and advantages that accrue as a result of that ability.


Now that we have looked at the component parts of the term, let’s come back to the term itself. Media Literacy.

Media Literacy, quite simply, is the ability to read the media.

Now, you may think that you already know how to do that. You read books. You watch films. You consume ads. Isn’t that reading? It actually is not.

Think about it. Isn’t there any difference between knowing the letters of the alphabet, and actually being able to understand the meaning that is created when they are stacked together in a sentence or a paragraph?

Yes, there’s A. Followed by B. Then by C. And then by D. And yes, the last letter’s Z. And the one before that is Y. And the one before that, X.

But is knowing that the same as being able to read sentences such as “I know every letter individually.” “And I know what words are formed when some of them are put together such as ‘cat’, ‘mad’, ‘trap’ and ‘fat’.”

Similarly, merely using our eyes or ears to experience a media message, say a film, is not the same as funneling what we see through our brain. Media Literacy is about conscious consumption.

And it is about more informed choices.

That’s because whether or not we like it, the media affects us. It eggs us on, consciously or unconsciously, to make certain choices. Why do some people decide to wear glasses, for example? And why do others cringe at the very thought? Why do some people subscribe to The Economic Times and others to Business Standard? Why do so many educated English-speaking urban Indians call themselves liberal?

The question at the crux is this: On what basis do we decide what is desirable and what is not? That is, how do we know what is good and what is not. How do we reach an understanding about social expectations and the world around us?

We do this on the basis of what we see, read, hear and consume. And if these messages, about how we should be and what we should be, aren’t coming to us from people directly, they are coming to us from the media they make. In fact, more than ever before they are coming to us from the media.

That’s why it is time to examine media messages and by extension ourselves, a little bit more. That’s why it is time to embrace Media Literacy.



Okay. So Media Literacy is important. If not important, it is definitely beneficial.

But how do you go about acquiring that literacy?

It is very, very simple.

Just ask questions. Ask them every time you come across a media message.

While there are many questions that you can ask, remember the following key questions:

  1. Who made this message?
  2. What are the creative techniques that were used to grab my attention?
  3. How might others see this message?
  4. What are the values, points of view, and lifestyles that are included in this message? Which ones are omitted?
  5. Why was this message created?

And remember these five key concepts for every media message you see:

  • All media messages are constructed.
  • Media messages are constructed using a creative language with its own rules.
  • Different people experience the same message differently.
  • Media have embedded values and points of view.
  • Most media messages are organised to gain profit and/or power.

*Based on Centre for Media Literacy’s ‘Five Key Questions’ (http://www.medialit.org/sites/default/files/14A_CCKQposter.pdf)

Now, let’s use this framework and consider each type of media in detail.


Media Literacy India is an initiative of the JM (Journalism Mentor) Foundation for Excellence in Journalism.

This website is under development. If you are interested in volunteering towards this initiative, please send an email to medialiteracy@journalism.org.in