The What and Why of Media Literacy

By Lucas Jacob, director of Writing, Communication and Media Literacy

When I was 11 years old, my sixth-grade classmates and I patrolled the aisles of the local grocery store, clipboards in hand. On checklists, we marked off how store brand cereal boxes mimicked the look of “Frosted Flakes”; we diagrammed the placement of products, from high to low and left to right; we studied color schemes and packaging materials. In the ensuing weeks, we invented our own consumer products, recorded our advertising copy through handheld microphones plugged into small plastic tape recorders, and designed would-be billboards for placement along the I-290 Eisenhower Expressway.

I did not know that what I was doing was studying media literacy. And I never looked at things in the same way again.

That was in the mid-1980s. When I first taught courses in the mid-90s that would now be called “Media Literacy,” it was still sometimes controversial to spend class time on texts like ads, TV shows and pop songs. 

In retrospect, perhaps that tension was understandable. Perhaps it was possible then to maintain the illusion of a line between academic study and mass media entertainment. Although medium-specific endeavors like film-study programs had begun to chip away at that illusion by the 1960s, it may have taken the internet age to dissolve it. 

For better or for worse, it is now commonly acknowledged that young people read more text on screens than in books. Pop culture is with us everywhere, thanks to our smartphones. Vital rites of passage are digitally captured and shared, and identity creation is filtered through Instagram and TikTok. 

Formal media literacy education (MLE) is now one of the fastest-growing fields of study in colleges and universities and Pre-K–12 schools and districts. The most commonly used definition of media literacy today was coined by the Aspen Institute 30 years ago: “the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, and create media in a variety of forms.”  

News, films, television, popular music and advertising are all media forms for which specialized literacy skills are most effectively learned in collaborative settings with other students. The 21st century has already provided vital new arenas of media literacy study in social networking and machine learning/AI. MLE overlaps in countless ways with the invaluable work schools do through wellness initiatives and the study of diversity, equity and culture.

The urgency of MLE work has grown in ways that few of us who began our education careers in the 1990s could have imagined.

At a time in which young people don’t just encounter the world through screens, they build their worlds on screens, formal education must involve “the ability to…analyze [and] evaluate…media in a variety of forms.” Our students must understand what it means to create media in healthy, thoughtful, responsible and ethical ways.

At LJCDS, we are studying exactly where and how our students already learn media literacy competencies and immersing ourselves in effective MLE practices from across the country and around the world. We will use what we learn to identify a formal scope and sequence for an age 3–Grade 12 media literacy education.

We are guided by considerations that reach beyond the fact that 21st-century lives are saturated with mass media. After all, in some important ways life was intertwined with mass media 20, 40 and 60 years ago. Now, however, new media arise far more quickly than anyone can learn to study them one by one. Young people need an overarching approach to literacy that can evolve to account for technologies that we cannot imagine today but will exist in a few short years. Media literacy is not a set curriculum; it is a mindset–a way of seeing.

At LJCDS, we look forward to helping young people develop that mindset.

<strong>Lucas Jacob</strong>
Lucas Jacob

Director of Writing, Communication and Media Literacy

Lucas Jacob serves as LJCDS’s Director of Writing, Communication, and Media Literacy. This role involves working with all three divisions on initiatives related to communication, focusing especially on writing and on 21st-century literacies.

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