Defining the Umbrella Term ‘Media Literacy’ and the Competencies and Concepts it Includes

With our state advocacy leaders, we have developed definitions to help advocates and policymakers navigate the terrain of literacy in the 21st century. Media and communication technologies are changing quickly, and the terms we use are sometimes not well defined. Our glossary stems from a desire to assist policymakers and advocates in driving policy changes that lead to media literacy education for all K-12 students.

Media Literacy

Media literacy is the umbrella term for a number of other competencies and concepts.

Media literacy is the ability to: decode media messages, including the systems in which they exist; assess the influence of those messages on our thoughts, feelings, behaviors, perceptions, beliefs, health, and on our society; and use and create media to provide information, send a message, or tell one’s own story in a way that is thoughtful, conscientious, safe, and responsible.

We draw from a shared definition of the field that has endured for the past 30 years. The National Association for Media Literacy Education definition is an evolution of the commonly cited definition developed at a 1992 Aspen Institute conference on media literacy: Media literacy is the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, create, and act using all forms of communication.

The Connecticut definition from House Bill 6762, passed and signed by the governor in 2023, takes the above a step further: Media literacy means the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, create and participate with media in all forms by understanding the role of media in society, and building skills of inquiry and self-expression essential to participation and collaboration in a democratic society.

Digital Citizenship

Digital citizenship refers to the use of media literacy to participate in the public sphere using communications technology. Digital citizenship is an outcome that requires media literacy skills.

We will use the Texas statutory definition:
Digital citizenship refers to applying “the standards of appropriate, responsible, and healthy online behavior, including the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, create, and act on all forms of digital communication.”

The key to understanding digital citizenship is this: “We can’t fully exercise our citizenship without the literacies that our time (including our media environment) demands – media, social and digital literacies – and without the agency to exercise our human rights and engage as citizens.” Anne Collier, founder and executive director of The Net Safety Collaborative

Digital Literacy

Digital literacy is applying media literacy skills when using digital technology to create, send, and take in information and messages.

Digital literacy has arisen from the disciplines of the computer sciences and library and information sciences. The term is sometimes connected to learning the basic techniques of using digital devices, including computers, tablets, smartphones, and the internet. We however, borrow more heavily from the library and information sciences in our use of the term. Thus, our definition emphasizes the use of critical thinking skills when engaging in the creation, sharing, and consumption of media and information through digital devices and platforms.

It’s notable that the U.S. Department of Education has a definition for programs it funds: “Digital literacy refers to the skills needed when using digital technology that enable users to find, evaluate, organize, create, and communicate information; and also to develop digital citizenship and the responsible use of technology.” It is essential that policymakers and local education agencies understand the full scope of digital literacy because of the funding at stake.

The UNESCO definition is also helpful here: “Digital literacy is the ability to access, manage, understand, integrate, communicate, evaluate and create information safely and appropriately through digital technologies for employment, decent jobs and entrepreneurship. It includes competences that are variously referred to as computer literacy, [information and communication technologies] literacy, information literacy and media literacy.”

Information Literacy

Information literacy is a subdomain of media literacy that enables individuals to recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information. We have relied on the definition of the American Library Association.

Information literacy requires questions such as; Is this website legitimate? Is it a good source for the information I need? For example; Is this the U.S. government’s official Bureau of Labor statistics website, and is it the best place to get information about how many people work in the farm industry?

News Literacy

News literacy is a subdomain of media literacy with an emphasis on knowledge of journalistic practice and the news media industry applied to judging the credibility and reliability of information found in news sources.

For example, when using news literacy skills one asks: What kind of news source is this? How independent is this source? Do the practitioners use the practices of journalism to create news that informs its audience? Are the facts verified and credible? Is the place where I get news a reliable source of factual information that I can use to make decisions or take actions?

For this definition we rely on the work of Dr. Michael A. Spikes at Northwestern University and also this News Literacy Project definition:

News Literacy Project:
News literacy is the ability to determine the credibility of news and other information and to recognize the standards of fact-based journalism to know what to trust, share and act on.

Digital Wellness

Digital wellness education addresses the physical and emotional health impacts of media use, with attention to helping develop the conscious, balanced use of media that aligns with an individuals’ goals for their health and well-being.

For this definition we rely on the Harvard Medical School/Childrens Hospital Digital Wellness Lab: Digital wellness is an intentional state of physical, mental, and social health that occurs with mindful engagement with the digital and natural environment.

Social Media Literacy

Social media literacy is media literacy applied when using social media. Since so much of information consumption, creation, and sharing takes place on social media platforms, social media literacy encompasses digital, information, and news literacies. It is essential that students learn how the rise of social media requires greater responsibilities for the creation and dissemination of news and information via digital platforms.

Social media literacy also encompasses digital citizenship and digital wellness to address physical and mental health implications of social media use, including positive or negative mental and emotional health implications of viewing certain social media content, and all aspects of safety and wellness related to social media use.

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