Towards a Broad and Inclusive Definition of Media Literacy

Media literacy definitions have been in flux during the 20th century. Scholars, policy makers, educators, and activists from Europe, Australia, and North America, in particular, have defined the term according to their different interests, ideologies, and perspectives, giving rise to several definitions that are contradictory. Although the conflicting interests of the stakeholders have become an obstacle for the creation of a consensus on the aims and purposes of media literacy, in the last two decades, there has been some sort of general agreement on the key concepts and principles. As the contemporary social, cultural, technological, and economical contexts have become more global, networked, and convergent, the tendency to define media literacy in broader, general, and inclusive terms has become more accepted.

Historically, defining media literacy has been a site of contestation over power and authority. Defining who has the right to access, interpret and produce media texts, and to participate in society and culture through media, has been a struggle at the core of human societies. When the term media literacy appears in the academic, public, and policy discussions of the 20th century in Europe and North America, it does it in the sociocultural and economic context of transition between industrial and post-industrial societies. In this context, numerous mediated representations of reality, culture, knowledge, and values circulate among the population via print media (e.g. newspapers, magazines, and comics) and electronic media (e.g. film, radio, and television). In an effort to define and justify the need for understanding, learning, and reading the new media texts, proponents of media literacy decided to use the term “literacy.” This term had already earned a place in the discourses of education, history, and policy, and had already been institutionalized in public schooling. Extending the classical meaning of “literacy” (reading and writing) to other media not only legitimized the value of new media texts but also highlighted the importance of teaching how to read and write them.

It makes sense to understand the evolution of the aims and purposes of media literacy in relation to the study of the more general term “literacy.” “Literacy” has been at the origin of “media literacy” and also is becoming its end. As networked digital media, converge with print and broadcast media in the context of our contemporary post-industrial society, there is a growing consensus around the idea that “media literacy” should include all media, support the development of citizenship, foster participation in culture and society, and embrace the multiplicity of literacies (information, visual, network, computer, internet) that have spawned in the last decades. On the one hand, general principles of “media literacy” (access, analysis, evaluation, content creation) have been consolidated in official documents such as the one of the USA National Leadership Conference of Media Literacy (1992), the UNESCO(1999), and UK OFCOM (2003). On the other, leading scholars such as Buckingham (2011, 2007, 2005, 2003), Livingstone (2009, 2008, 2003), Hobbs (2011, 1998), Bazalgette (2008), Copen and Kalantzis (2000), Perez-Tornero (2008, 2010), Gutierrez (2011, 2008), Soep (2010), and Tyner (1998), have elaborated conceptual frameworks that recognize the need for an integrative and inclusive notion of media literacy.

As the aims and purposes of media literacy become more wider, and inclusive, the evolution of the term seems to be closing a circular trajectory and approaching to the general and basic aims of the term literacy. Following the previous attempts to tracing the historical trajectory of media literacy and media education in Europe, USA, and Australia (Masterman 1992, Buckingham 2003, Gee 2010), I would like to identify the stages of the evolution as a series of paradigms. During the “inoculative or discriminatory paradigm” (1930s-) the aims and purposes had an emphasis on protecting audiences against the disease of the lowbrow literature, art, and culture. Since media corrupted and contaminated the audience, media literacy was necessary to maintain the canon. The “popular arts paradigm” (1950s-) emerged in parallel to the development of academic film studies and it implied that some media was worthy of study due to their aesthetic value (good or bad). In the 1970s, influenced by the theoretical developments in structuralism, semiotics, cultural, and media studies, the “representation paradigm” appeared. This paradigm focused the aims of media literacy on demystification, revealing the constructed nature of media texts, and showing how media reinforces ideologies.

It was not until the 1990s, with the development of the sociocultural and historical approach to the study of literacy, that the aims and purposes of media literacy started to appear closer to the ones of literacy. Leaded by Gee, the New Literacy Studies (NLS) brought together an interdisciplinary group of scholars that understood literacy as a sociocultural phenomenon. By recognizing literacy as a discourse, and acknowledging the importance of the experiences in the world for learning (situated cognition), NLS scholars validated the possibility of mastering a broad range of discourses or literacies. NLS had a direct impact in the aims and purposes of media literacy because it opened a space for the recognition of multiple and new literacies across a rich variety of social and cultural mediated practices. The NLS was the beginning of new paradigm that I would like to call “the interactive and participatory paradigm” in where creative production, peer interaction, and diverse cultural and social communication practices gained recognition.

Historically, the “interactive and participatory paradigm” has coincided with the diffusion and adoption of digital networked media technologies such as computers, mobile phones, videogames, portable music players, video and photo cameras, and very important, the Internet. As people, particularly youth, devolop different cultural and social practices using digital media, new literacies and discourses appear. However, broadcast and print media practices do not disappear. Instead, they converge with the new media ones. Multiple literacies that emerge from the variety of digital mediated practices (e.g. photoshop literacy, meme literacy, otaku literacy, machinema literacy, etc), converge with the old ones. For instance, when participating in a Anime Fan Video online community peers not only need new literacies such as the otaku literacy, but also need to be able to read and write typographic text, and recognize the genres of the videos using analytical tools from the “representation paradigm” (selection, construction, mediation, representation). This fact reveals that the aims and goals from old media literacy paradigms do not totally disappear. They are part of a circular trajectory of media literacy that can be revisited anytime by policy makers, scholars, activists, and other kinds of stakeholders. Take for instance the arguments made by some policy makers about the risks of the Internet and mobile devices for children and culture. Some of those arguments seem to revive the aesthetic distinctions of the “popular arts paradigm” (e.g. amateur vs professional journalism) and the protectionist stance of the “inoculative paradigm” (e.g. videogame violence corrupting children).

The tendency to consider media literacy in a more general, inclusive, and broader sense has made irrelevant some of the conflicting definitions and their different aims and goals. Considering all media at once (interconnected, networked, convergent) solves the problems of privileging one media over others. Combining technical skills and abilities (tool operation, creation, access) with critical understanding and knowledge abilities (integrated analysis of production/texts/audiences, abstraction, metacognition) is key for a complex and integrative literacy approach. While these changes happen, the meaning of media literacy becomes more and more tied to the building of knowledge, the support of civic participation and sociocultural practices, and the development of free, democratic and multicultural societies.

However, this tendency towards convergence and agreement on the general aims and purposes of media literacy, has not totally erased previous negotiations and debates. As I said before, old paradigms, aims, and goals, are part of a historical trajectory that the term “media literacy” has cruised during the 20th century. That trajectory could be thought as a circle which starting and ending point is a general and broad concept of literacy, understood not only as the ability to read and write (using any media) but also as the competences, abilities, knowledge and skills that are necessary for participating in culture and society. Although literacy will be always a contested and ideological term, a basic general and broader definition becomes useful for talking about media literacy in networked, participatory, diverse, and democratic societies.


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