Spring 2004     ISSN 1096-1453     Volume 8, Issue 1     Editorial
Media Literacy is a relatively new academic domain, 
although mass media have existed for centuries, impacting  lives from its beginning. 
Think of Paine’s Common Sense impact on the American Revolution. Still, in the 21st 
century, media literacy has become associated with broadcast media and advertising, 
with a belief that those in power are trying to persuade the populace.  

Probably the most important factor that distinguishes media, relative to media 
literacy theory, is the reason for its existence: a conscious, constructive message 
to gain profit and/or power. Each medium has its own “language” and protocol for 
communicating its message. Photography’s visual experience highlights a personal 
and lifelike quality. Film is a collaborative effort; its unique feature is 
high-resolution capture of movement. Television’s distinguishing feature is its 
immediate worldwide distribution. Radio requires imaginative engagement, and often 
acts as “background” in contrast to the deliberate action of going to movies.

Another aspect of media literacy is context. Why is a particular message being 
delivered? Who is the targeted audience? What are the surrounding elements–historical, 
cultural, organizational -- that shape meaning? Media producers build on audience 
knowledge and emotions to offer highly connotative messages to leverage 
pre-established associations. Still, regardless of the conscious intent, each person 
perceives messages differently depends on one’s personal background and perspective.
 
The media literacy field  examines each of the above processes. In teaching this 
domain, academicians focus on consumer and producer roles. How can faculty provide 
students with the language, skills, and methodology that ready them for these 
encounters? How can they prepare students to recognize, engage, and interrogate power 
structures they encounter? Several questions arise when discussing how to teach media 
literacy: how young can students be taught media “language” or the critical analysis 
of media? What media literacy elements cross cultural borders? Do universal symbols 
and icons exist relative to media literacy, or must all comprehension and analysis be 
couched in terms of particular culture-bound values and semiology?

Still, many academics avoid studying the role of media in the lives of students 
because media triggers such emotional connotations, particularly in terms of 
consumerism and cultural values. The connections, the argument follows, between 
media and popular culture, between media literacy and critical pedagogy, or between 
popular culture and post-modern theory are less than rigorous. Still, media’s 
predominance in faculty and students' lives demands that they reconsider what it 
means to be literate in today's world.

Nevertheless, entities who strongly advocate media literacy often call upon students 
and other media consumers to act consciously in response to the act of putting forth 
a message. The focus changes from the message or goal to the producer. At what 
pointdoes the student become part of the media? Do universities strive to profit or 
influence? Academicians cannot totally separate themselves from the media. That 
awareness, in itself, has the potential to look at this issue more thoughtfully and 
sympathetically.
Dr. Lesley S. J. Farmer,    California State University, Long Beach
E-mail: lfarmer@csulb.edu