Are You Media Literate?

Take a minute to think about how you view the world. What are your desires? What are your fears? What are your prejudices? Why do you have these thoughts and emotions?

Your worldview has likely been molded, in part, by the media you’ve been exposed to throughout your life. Communication scholar, W. James Potter claims that the media programs most people’s views about life by establishing their “expectations for relationships, attractiveness, success, celebrity, health, newsworthy events, problems, and solutions.”

One place where we can observe the media’s influence on people’s worldviews is in the areas of crime and violence on television. Research has found that people who watch more TV see the world as a scarier, more violent place than people who watch less television. They also think that violent crime is more prevalent than it actually is in real life.

That isn’t really surprising given the amount of violence shown on entertainment TV shows and in the news. A steady diet of programs like CBS’s Criminal Minds and NCIS and ABC’s political drama Scandal, which portray a lot of violence and crime, would probably make most of us a bit paranoid as we navigate the streets at night. Even if the neighborhoods are safe, we might be more likely to think that crime and violence is “right around the corner” after watching a lot of it on TV.

If you’re a mom or know moms of young children, it’s important to understand that children are especially vulnerable to media messages. Research has found that it is very difficult for children under the age of eight to understand advertising messages and they are prone to accept commercials as truthful, accurate and unbiased.

Even if the neighborhoods are safe, we might be more likely to think that crime and violence is “right around the corner” after watching a lot of it on TV.

That’s frightening when you consider that the average child sees more than 40,000 ads per year and that even 30-second commercials have been found to influence brand preferences in children as young as two years old. With such susceptibility, it’s no wonder that companies spend about $17 billion annually marketing to children.

As the media can have such an impact on our lives, it is important to become media literate and to teach our youth media literacy. Just as you learned how to read words when you were a child, you can also learn to think critically about the media you encounter each day.

Media literacy is the ability to 1) access, 2) analyze, 3) evaluate, and 4) create media.

ACCESS

Most of us have access, the first step, down pat. We know how to use the DVR, Netflix and all of those fancy apps on our smart phones, but the ability to access media is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to developing media literacy.

ANALYZE & EVALUATE

When a person also knows how to analyze and evaluate the media messages they encounter each day, they are less likely to be negatively influenced by those messages.

Five questions from the Center for Media Literacy will help you analyze and evaluate the media you encounter. Why not try asking yourself these questions after watching your favorite TV program this evening?

  1. Who created this message? Think about who wrote and edited the TV show, movie, newscast, or commercial. Though it may look “realistic”, remember that it took a team of people to construct the message.
  2. What creative techniques are used to attract my attention? Think about how the use of effects like music, lighting, camera angles, props, clothing and colors have been used to draw your attention to certain aspects of the message and make it seem more realistic or persuasive. How does the use of these techniques affect your thoughts and emotions as you watch the message?
  3. How might different people understand this message differently than me? Think about how people from different cultural backgrounds or age groups might interpret this message differently than you. For instance, some ethnic groups might find it humorous, whereas some might find it offensive.
  4. What values, lifestyles or points of view are represented in, or omitted from, this message? Think about what this media message says about who or what is important in life. All media messages are framed to highlight certain values. Often, messages will promote and reinforce stereotypes.
  5. Why is this message being sent? Lastly, think about how the message may have been influenced by money, ideology, or an attempt to gain power. Try identifying product placements within the message? Is the main character holding a Coke in their hand?  Driving a Lexus? Brands are sometimes strategically placed throughout media messages as subtle advertisements.

CREATE

Finally, a person who can also create media is more apt to recognize production techniques used to grab viewers’ attention, and also have the potential to start telling new stories — important stories that are not receiving coverage in the mainstream media.

When you are more aware of how the media functions and the effects that it can have on you, you will have more control over how it will affect your life. You will become media literate — a more critical viewer, more able to recognize bias and spin, persuasion techniques and marketing strategies.

Media literacy empowers us to avoid being “programmed” by the media. See “You Are What You Read” as an example of how media literacy can help women avoid being programmed by the typical media messages on female beauty.

So, why not put on a critical eye and start reading between the lines as you watch the nightly news, the latest blockbusters and your favorite television shows? Let’s start managing the media we watch, read and listen to, rather than allowing them to manage and control us.

How do you actively consider the media’s messages when taking them in?

Image via Chelsie Autumn

With a Ph.D. in communication from the University of Arizona, Keli was a professor at Pepperdine University for six years. Her research focuses on the media's influence on people and the sexual messages in today's television programs. Taking a break from academia, she now lives in Dallas, TX with her husband and two young daughters.

3 COMMENTS
  • Irina S December 2, 2014

    Such a great article. Makes me completely re-evalutate the shows I’ve been watching on TV. Thank you for posting x

    • Keli January 11, 2016

      Irina, I just noticed your comment… a year later! I’m sorry I missed it. Thank you for posting! I’m so glad to hear that it impacted the way you view TV.

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