Part I

Situating the Interdisciplinary Concepts

2. Situating Media Literacy

© 2021 Richard S. Lewis, CC BY 4.0 https://doi.org/10.11647/OBP.0253.02

Literacy, meaning alphabetic literacy, is no longer the keynote of Western culture. That is to say that capital-L Literacy is obsolete, having been done in when we killed the reading public, the ground of literacy. As with the Hydra (once her head was lopped off, new heads sprang up in its place), so with Literacy: now we see dozens, nay entire litters of (small-‘l’) little literacies springing up spontaneously here and there with evident abandon. (McLuhan, 2009: 9)

It seems that everywhere we look in the modern Western world we see information and communication technologies being used, mediating our lives every day. We have become so accustomed to living with these extraordinary technologies that they have been rendered ordinary. New devices and technologies, after a brief though sometimes painful learning curve, begin to disappear from the center of our attention as we navigate the world through them. While media literacy focuses on educating people in order for them to become more aware and adept at consuming, using, and creating media content for specific outcomes (Aufderheide, 1993), it primarily attends to the content of the messages—both intended and unintended—especially concerning how human subjects are represented (Jolls & Wilson, 2014).

This chapter situates media literacy within the broader fields of communications and education. I investigate current ways of defining media literacy and call for an expansion of media literacy in order to include the medium and the context within which the messages are enacted. While more than a cursory overview of media literacy, this chapter will not exhaustively explore the field in its entirety. Rather, I give an overview of some of the current and historic aspects of media literacy and point out important areas that it often does not include. This provides a setting to bring in a framework and instrument of transdisciplinary concepts that can be used to enhance the field.

Focusing on the medium is a first step in broadening the scope of media literacy to include a broader context. While media literacy has focused mainly on media skills and representation (Jolls & Wilson, 2014; Masterman, 1989), this has left the study of the effects of the medium to outside fields such as medium theory (Meyrowitz, 1994; Qvortrup, 2006); mediatization (Adolf, 2011; Hjarvard, 2013, 2014; Lundby, 2014); media ecology (Anton, 2006, 2016; Logan, 2011; McLuhan, 1994; Postman, 1974, 2000; Strate, 2017; Van Den Eede, 2012, 2016); and even the study of the biography of things (Kopytoff, 1988; Lesage, 2013).

The next step after including the medium is to further expand media literacy to include the context within which we engage with media. I use the example of domestication theory in order to do so. By including the environment, the complexity of our media relations become more apparent, making the case for expanding our approach to media literacy to include, as Shaun Moores (2016) says, a non-media-centric media literacy. My goal is to describe the current field of media literacy, situating it at the intersection of communications and education. I make the case that expanding the focus beyond content to include the effects of the medium and context can help improve our understanding of the broader effects of media—both the drawbacks and benefits.

Communication Beyond the Transmission Model

Media literacy is a combination of media (mostly studied within the field of communications) and literacy (mostly studied within the field of education). Before delving into the literacy aspect, I explain some of the background and different approaches in the field of communications. For much of the second half of the twentieth century, the dominant way of understanding communication was through the transmission model, where ‘communication is a process of sending and receiving messages or transferring information from one mind to another’ (Craig, 1999: 125). Claude Shannon (1948) and Shannon and Warren Weaver (1964) developed a mathematical model in order to understand communication, reducing a complex process down into a simple and easily graspable model, which ‘is widely accepted as one of the main seeds out of which Communication Studies has grown. It is a clear example of the process school, seeing communication as the transmission of messages’ (Fiske, 1990: 6). The transmission model is the basis of information theory and has been a building block for a general understanding of the flow of information and communication.

The transmission model (see Fig. 2.1) consists of the producer of the message (information source); the transmitter that encodes the message; the conduit or channel through which the message is sent; the receiver that decodes the message; and the destination where the message arrives. In the process, there is also noise, which interferes with the clarity of the message. A common example of this model is a telephone call. The person initiating the call is the information source; their phone encodes the message; the telephone line or wireless network is the conduit; the person’s phone receiving the call is the receiver that decodes the message; and the destination is the person who hears the message. The noise is any interference: static on the line or network, noises in the background, etc.

Fig. 2.1 Transmission model of communication. Adapted from Shannon & Weaver (1964: 34). Image by Wanderingstan (2007), Wikimedia, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Shannon_communication_system.svg#/media/File:Shannon_communication_system.svg, Public Domain.

While the transmission model is still frequently used in information and computer sciences, it has drawn criticism from social sciences (Carey, 2008; Deetz, 1994; Pearce, 1989) as well as from media ecology for being too reductive and for approaching communication as something that occurs between autonomous—already fully established—entities rather than between relational beings. Robert Craig (1999) states that there has been much discussion around need and desire for the transmission model being ‘supplemented, if not entirely supplanted, by a model that conceptualizes communication as a constitutive process that produces and reproduces shared meaning’ (125). In other words, there is more to communication theory than a one-way transmission of a message from one source to another. There is shared meaning-making occurring. Craig advocates for the creation of a meta-model (called the constitutive model) that allows a space for many different models to exist, each being useful for a particular purpose (127).

James Carey (2008) also argues against the transmission model, saying that it is important to retain the connection to community and culture. He advocates for more of a ritual or cultural view of communication. Stuart Adam (2008) describes Carey’s approach as portraying a more ‘developed understanding of communication [involving] both a ritual and a transmission view’ (xviii), both of which are needed for a modern society to exist. Antonio López (2014: 47–48) builds upon Carey’s view (with somewhat more criticism) and cautions against the transmission model:

In terms of media literacy, using mechanistic models of cognition and communication will reinforce the paradigm of industrialism, remaining stuck in a system of ‘bad ideas’; the essential bad idea being the assumption that communication is a matter of autonomous beings transporting ideas between each other as messages, and that such communication is disembodied from the thinking system that comprises our cultural patterns and embeddedness within living systems.

López continues by describing an ecological intelligence where a person is ‘not simply an autonomous self but is part of an interconnected thinking system that not only includes socially constructed knowledge but knowledge that is co-produced with the living environment’ (48). This moves from an approach where people construct their own knowledge of the world to an approach that understands the co-constitution that occurs during communication.

Marshall McLuhan (as cited in Eric McLuhan, 2008) calls Shannon and Weaver’s communication model a theory of transportation, not communication. He defines communication as something that transforms or changes the recipient. Without this transformation, it is not communication. Marshall McLuhan, as his son Eric McLuhan (2008: 30–31) summarizes, believes that:

Communication means change. If something is communicated the recipient has changed in some manner or degree. Our ‘common sense’ idea of communication is merely one of transporting messages from point to point. Shannon and Weaver laid the foundation of all Western ‘theories of communication’ with their model. […] But this only is a transportation theory, not a theory of communication. They are concerned merely with getting a bundle of goodies from one place to another, while keeping dreaded Noise to a minimum.

The constitutive model of communication, where the action of communication changes the recipient, as well as the person communicating, is how I conceive of communication in this book. The act of communication is a relational act that co-constitutes (transforms) the people involved in the communication. This co-constituting relationality is an integral concept in the development of the posthuman developed in this book.

Media Literacy Overview

The term ‘literacy’ in media literacy reflects the underlying echo of reading or print literacy. However, media literacy focuses on a person’s competence and knowledge of media. And, with the swift speed of change in current media trends, it is becoming more and more difficult to keep abreast of the many new developments. As Lev Manovich (2013) points out, the world ‘is now defined not by heavy industrial machines that change infrequently, but by software that is always in flux’ (1–2). The need for media literacy has never been so important. I begin by discussing the importance of education and its impact on agency, after which I offer several definitions of media literacy from key organizations. Then, the core concepts and competencies of media literacy are discussed, concluding with an overview of the approaches currently found in media literacy.

Education, Literacy, and Agency

One of media literacy’s core aspects is education (e.g., Alvermann et al., 2018; Hobbs & Jensen, 2009; Kellner & Share, 2019; Livingstone & Van der Graaf, 2008; Potter, 2018; and the journal Teaching Media Quarterly). This focus on education pragmatically elevates the importance of the user and helps to ground the theoretical concepts concerning media. While literacy is not a neutral term and comes with its own contradictions (Luke, 1989; Livingstone, 2004), it also stresses the focus on the user of media, whether as one whom consumes, produces, or simply uses it. This general educational aspect is, as John Dewey (1997) posits, critical for a healthy democracy. McLuhan (1969) says, somewhat hyperbolically, ‘If we understand the revolutionary transformations caused by new media, we can anticipate and control them; but if we continue in our self-induced subliminal trance, we will be their slaves’ (n.p.).

Media literacy’s focus on education is key for developing awareness and thus agency. Since this educational component is not as heavily stressed in the other fields of inquiry that I analyze (specifically postphenomenology and philosophical posthumanism), I draw inspiration from media literacy in order to create an approach that is pragmatic and useful as an instrument for education.

The term literacy in education has its own socio-cultural baggage and should not be thought of as a neutral term. Carmen Luke (1989) points out that the basis of public schooling standardized ‘what and how all children should be taught; it would provide all children with basic literacy skills and simultaneously facilitate the mass transmission of centrally selected and controlled knowledge’ (5). Sonia Livingstone (2004) summarizes Luke’s (1989) points by saying, literacy ‘masks a complex history of contestation over the power and authority to access, interpret, and produce printed texts’ (4). In other words, who gets to define and judge the qualities and knowledges that equate with literacy? And, as the primary medium of print gives way to a diversity of media, Jay Lemke (2006) suggests, ‘We need a broader definition of literacy itself, one that includes all literate practices, regardless of medium’ (3).

At the start of the chapter, I referred to a quote by Eric McLuhan (2009) which points out that there are many variations of literacy. Two variations that are close to (and can be considered part of) media literacy are digital literacy (Buckingham, 2006; Gilster, 1997; Van Dijk & Van Deursen, 2014), and social media literacy (Ahn, 2013; Burnett & Merchant, 2011; Livingstone, 2014; Vanwynsberghe, 2014). Livingstone (2004: 5) states,

[P]eople now engage with a media environment which integrates print, audiovisual, telephony, and computer media. Hence, we need a conceptual framework that spans these media. Literacy seems to do the work required here: It is pan-media in that it covers the interpretation of all complex, mediated symbolic texts broadcast or published on electronic communications networks; at the same time.

Some of the most recent literacies are artificial intelligence literacy (or related literacies such as those concerning machine learning or neural networks) and algorithmic literacy. Petar Jandrić (2019) makes the case for expanding critical media literacy to encompass artificial intelligence (AI) and the postdigital context. Jussi Okkonen and Sirkku Kotilainen (2019) describe the potential effects that AI has on youth (and their parents) and the implications this has for media literacy. Jialei Jiang and Matthew Vetter (2020) make the case for becoming more literate concerning the effects of algorithms, specifically analyzing algorithmic writing bots on Wikipedia. These postdigital challenges point to future directions that are emerging in media literacy.

Education can increase a person’s awareness, which in turn facilitates the ability for them to regain agency. An entire issue of the Journal of Media Literacy (Andersen & Arcus, 2017) is devoted to the concept of agency in media literacy. In it, Neil Andersen and Carol Arcus write, ‘Agency is knowledge in action. In media literacy, agency is the exercising of awareness through critical thinking skills to effect change personally, locally and/or globally’ (3). While agency of technology is discussed in more depth in Chapter 3, it is important in media literacy to understand that there is a shared agency as we interact with media, and by increasing our awareness (through education) we can increase our own agency. Tsjalling Swierstra and Katinka Waelbers (2012) say, ‘Technologies affect our actions not just by altering the course of action (like billiard balls act upon each other) but by mediating our reasons or motives to act in a particular way’ (160).

In support of media users having agency, Douglas Kellner and Jeff Share (2007) focus on audience theory to point out ‘the moment of reception [is] a contested terrain of cultural struggle where critical thinking skills offer potential for the audience to negotiate different readings and openly struggle with dominant discourses’ (13). Additionally, McLuhan scholar Robert Logan (2013) explains McLuhan’s aphorism—the user is the content—means that ‘each reader or viewer brings his or her own experience and understanding to a medium and transforms the content according to his or her own need and abilities’ (76). Logan further explains, ‘information does not have an intrinsic meaning independent of the user’ (77). Media literacy plays a key role in helping educate people with regards to their media-rich lives, facilitating their awareness and thus increasing their own agency.

Defining Media Literacy

Bringing media and literacy together has created its own field of study. However, moving from the single-medium of print to the plurality of media-types and technologies makes it difficult to reduce media literacy to a single description. As Tibor Koltay (2011) states, ‘media literacy is an umbrella concept. It is characterized by a diversity of perspectives and a multitude of definitions’ (212).

It is Len Masterman’s (1989, 2010) focus on representation that helps media literacy emerge from media studies. Masterman, from the United Kingdom, and Barry Duncan (2010), from Canada are often considered the founders of media literacy (Jolls & Wilson, 2014). According to Masterman (1989), ‘The central unifying concept of Media Education is that of representation. The media mediate. They do not reflect but re-present the world. The media […] are symbolic sign systems that must be decoded’ (see Principle 2). This approach emphasizes the encoding and decoding of media representations and reflects the content-focused and transportation approach that has been dominant in media literacy.

As the U.S.-based National Association for Media Literacy (NAMLE) states, ‘Media literacy is the ability to encode and decode the symbols transmitted via media and the ability to synthesize, analyze and produce mediated messages’ (NAMLE, 2019). This definition is rooted in how the transmission concept of communication re-presents the sociocultural world. Masterman (2010: 5) differentiates content from representation:

What we were actually studying was television and not its different subject contents. That is, we were not actually studying sport or music or news or documentary. We were studying representations of these things. We were studying the ways in which these subjects were being represented and symbolized and packaged by the medium.

While Masterman (1989) is making the case against a simple content-centered approach, the conceptual framework he advocates for is still directed at reading and analyzing (decoding) media content and does not, for example, include the influence of the specific technological medium.

Another definition that comes from the Center for Media Literacy (CML) (2019) in the U.S., builds upon Masterman’s (1980, 1989) concepts and contributes a more extended definition of media literacy, stating that it provides,

[A] framework to access, analyze, evaluate, create and participate with messages in a variety of forms—from print to video to the Internet. Media literacy builds an understanding of the role of media in society as well as essential skills of inquiry and self-expression necessary for citizens of a democracy. (2nd expanded definition)

This definition covers many of the standard concepts and approaches (cf. below) used by many organizations involved with media literacy—from government agencies to educational organizations. Arguably, more important than defining media literacy is how organizations have put into practice the development and implementation of competencies, core concepts, and questions.

Competencies, Concepts, and Questions

Several people and organizations have created lists of competencies in order to better articulate how a person might judge their own media literacy. This moves media literacy from being defined to being implemented, focusing on the abilities of a media literate person. Renee Hobbs1 (2010: 19) describes five essential competencies of digital and media literacy as:

  1. Access: Finding and using media and technology tools skillfully and sharing appropriate and relevant information with others.
  2. Analyze & Evaluate: Comprehending messages and using critical thinking to analyze message quality, veracity, credibility, and point of view, while considering potential effects or consequences of messages.
  3. Create: Composing or generating content using creativity and confidence in self-expression, with awareness of purpose, audience, and composition techniques
  4. Reflect: Applying social responsibility and ethical principles to one’s own identity and lived experience, communication behavior and conduct.
  5. Act: Working individually and collaboratively to share knowledge and solve problems in the family, the workplace and the community, and participating as a member of a community at local, regional, national and international levels.

Similarly, Ben Bachmair and Cary Bazalgette (2007: 84) describe the claim from the European Charter for Media Literacy that a media literate person should be able to:

  • Use media technologies effectively to access, store, retrieve and share content to meet their individual and community needs and interests;
  • Gain access to, and make informed choices about, a wide range of media forms and content from different cultural and institutional sources;
  • Understand how and why media content is produced;
  • Analyze critically the techniques, languages and conventions used by the media, and the messages they convey;
  • Use media creatively to express and communicate ideas, information and opinions;
  • Identify, and avoid or challenge, media content and services that may be unsolicited, offensive or harmful;
  • Make effective use of media in the exercise of their democratic rights and civic responsibilities.

These core competencies are additionally reflected in the CML’s handout (see Fig. 2.2), which is an effective example of bringing the concepts for media literacy into one useful document. In addition to the five core concepts, CML also has created questions for students to ask themselves since the core concepts can be somewhat theoretical. The questions can help guide students in their investigations into specific media. The document also helpfully differentiates between consumers and producers of media.

Fig. 2.2 The Center for Media Literacy’s core concepts and key questions handout. Used with Permission. © Center for Media Literacy, 2002–2020, All Rights Reserved, www.medialit.org

The development of media literacy questions has also been implemented by organizations such as the Association of Media Literacy (AML) in Canada and NAMLE (namle.net) in the U.S. In addition to the development of various definitions, competencies, and concepts—all of which help to pragmatically implement media literacy skills—there have also been different approaches to media literacy identified. These approaches are a helpful way of narrowing the ‘umbrella concept’ (Koltay, 2011) of media literacy.

Four Approaches

Kellner and Share (2005, 2007) identify four differing approaches to media literacy. These different models focus on developing skills for the media literate person. They articulate the four approaches as: media arts-based, a media literacy movement, protectionist, and critical media literacy.

Media Arts-Based

In a media arts-based approach to media literacy, the focus is on developing the ability and skills to use new forms of media, often for creative self-expression. The primary focus is on the individual’s ability to learn the skills in order to help find and creatively express their own voice through the media (Kellner & Share, 2007). While this contributes towards the literacy and empowerment of the individual, the approach tends to view the media in an instrumental or neutral manner—as a tool to learn in order to accomplish something. These programs can range in their level of emphasis on criticism, the danger being that if they only teach self-expression without also including a critical component, the students might be prone to ‘reproduce hegemonic representations or express their voice without the awareness of ideological implications or any type of social critique’ (7). Teaching the skills of working with the media technologies is very important, but it is important to teach the concept that the mediums worked with are not neutral, as well as the importance of critical analysis.

Media Literacy Movement

For the second approach, Kellner and Share (2005) situate a media literacy movement within broader literacies, building upon the tradition of print literacy. They primarily focus on the relatively young media literacy movement in the U.S. Here, the approach is to ‘teach students to read, analyze, and decode media texts in a fashion parallel to the advancement of print literacy’ (372). In the current landscape of fake news (cf. Jolls & Johnsen, 2017; Livingstone, 2018), the ability to decode and analyze what is being portrayed in the media is an important skill, critical for educating the population. As Livingstone (2018: para. 5, italics in original) warns,

The more that the media mediate everything in society—work, education, information, civic participation, social relationships and more—the more vital it is that people are informed about and critically able to judge what’s useful or misleading, how they are regulated, when media can be trusted, and what commercial or political interests are at stake. In short, media literacy is needed not only to engage with the media but to engage with society through the media.

Media literacy can often become an umbrella term for more specific literacies such as: digital literacy, internet literacy, computer literacy, and even potentially AI literacy. While Kellner and Share (2007) commend the media literacy movement, they believe that too often media educators ‘express the myth that education can and should be politically neutral, and that their job is to objectively expose students to media content without questioning ideology and issues of power’ (8). Literacy has its own socio-cultural baggage and should not be thought of as a neutral term. Citing Luke (1989), Livingstone (2004) states that literacy ‘masks a complex history of contestation over the power and authority to access, interpret, and produce printed texts’ (4). These last points are addressed by the fourth approach (cf. below).

Protectionist

A third approach in media literacy is the protectionist approach. This investigates the ways media can be harmful—especially for young people—with repercussions like reducing attention spans, inciting violence, or promoting capitalist propaganda, particularly in advertising (Francis, 2016; Giroux, 2002; Kellner & Share, 2007). Friedrich Kittler (1999) begins one of his books by stating, ‘Media determine our situation’ (xxxix). This determinist view is often foundational for the protectionists, who posit that certain media technologies are inherently harmful or destructive to human flourishing. Neil Postman (2006) and Lance Strate (2014) detail the drawbacks of electronic media like television, especially compared with print media. Kellner and Share (2007) point out that ‘Some conservatives blame the media for causing teen pregnancies and the destruction of family values while some on the left criticize the media for rampant consumerism and making children materialistic’ (6).

Some researchers within this approach also address the ways newer digital media are inferior for supporting a well-read society in comparison to traditional print media (Postman, 2006; Strate, 2014). This focus raises the issue of the effects of a particular medium on society. For example, Sherry Turkle (2011) warns that new information and communication technologies are driving us apart while giving us the semblance of being together through virtual communication. Kellner and Share (2007) describe this as a fear of media with an aim to ‘protect or inoculate people against the dangers of media manipulation and addiction. This protectionist approach posits media audiences as somewhat passive victims and values traditional print culture over media culture’ (6).

Stuart Hall (1980) challenges the view of audiences being passive victims through his work in encoding/decoding of media messages. Hall articulates that audiences are more than passive receivers of media texts and they have the ability to read the messages produced outside of a dominant-hegemonic position—preferred by the producers—in negotiated or even oppositional ways (1980). This raises the question of the role of agency. Though there is a wide variety of focus within the protectionist approach, it tends toward technological determinism, which is the opposite of the skills-based (instrumentalist) approach. The protectionist approach is inclined to consider media and technology as something harmful to humans. In general, the first two approaches tend to consider the technological medium as neutral, not focusing on any influence that the medium may have. For the protectionist approach, the content and medium become more determining, potentially endangering the user and suppressing much of the user’s agency.

Critical Media Literacy

The fourth approach is called critical media literacy and builds on the previous three approaches. It then adds the analysis of ‘media culture as products of social production and struggle […] teaching students to be critical of media representations and discourses, but also stressing the importance of learning to use the media as modes of self-expression and social activism’ (Kellner & Share, 2005: 372). According to Kellner and Share (2007: 8–9),

Critical media literacy thus constitutes a critique of mainstream approaches to literacy and a political project for democratic social change. This involves a multiperspectival critical inquiry of media culture and the cultural industries that address issues of class, race, gender, sexuality, and power and also promotes the production of alternative counter-hegemonic media. Media and information communication technology can be tools for empowerment when people who are most often marginalized or misrepresented in the mainstream media receive the opportunity to use these tools to tell their stories and express their concerns.

Critical media literacy strives to understand the underlying cultural influences and meanings that are embedded within media messages and how they often negatively affect already marginalized people. Kellner and Share (2007) state ‘The analysis of different models of representation of women or people of color makes clear the constructedness of gender and race representations and that dominant negative representations further subordination and make it look natural’ (13). They summarize by saying, ‘critical media literacy offers the tools and framework to help students become subjects in the process of deconstructing injustices, expressing their own voices, and struggling to create a better society’ (2005: 382). This reflects how media literacy can be used to regain user agency while navigating a mediated world. Lemke (2006) states, ‘More than ever we need a critical multimedia literacy to engage intelligently with their potential effects on our social attitudes and beliefs’ (4).

Supporting critical media literacy, John Hartley (2002) states, ‘Literacy is not and never has been a personal attribute or ideologically inert “skill” simply to be “acquired” by individual persons’ (135). Hartley continues by saying, ‘It is ideologically and politically charged—it can be used as a means of social control or regulation, but also as a progressive weapon in the struggle for emancipation’ (136). This reflects the non-neutrality of media and emphasizes the importance of learning how media affects our lives. While these four approaches cover much of the current state of media literacy, I believe that there is still more that should be covered by the field.

Expanding Media Literacy

With the ubiquity of ICTs and the speed with which they evolve and change, it is critical for media literacy to help us learn how to quickly situate and guide our own investigation into understanding the media we not only invite into our lives, but the inescapable media that surrounds us daily as well. Joshua Meyrowitz (1994: 50, italics added) provides an apt summary of media literacy:

Most of the questions that engage media researchers and popular observers of the media focus only on one dimension of our media environment: the content of media messages. Typical concerns centre on how people (often children) react to what they are exposed to through various media; how institutional, economic, and political factors influence what is and is not conveyed through media; whether media messages accurately reflect various dimensions of reality; how different audiences interpret the same content differently; and so on. These are all very significant concerns, but content issues do not exhaust the universe of questions that could, and should, be asked about the media.

While carving out an important niche for itself, media literacy has become an established area of study with its own supporting literature. However, in the process it has lost some of its original interdisciplinarity (cf. Moores, 2012; Morley, 2009), focusing mainly on issues of representation, skill development, analysis, and social construction through media content. As Tessa Jolls and Carolyn Wilson (2014) point out, ‘the pioneering work of communications expert Marshall McLuhan […] created a foundation upon which many of our current ideas about media literacy are built’ (69). That said, McLuhan’s focus on the effects of the medium has largely dropped off the radar for most iterations of media literacy.2

While media literacy brings several pedagogical tools that help people better understand not only how to use media effectively but also how to understand it critically (cf. Van Dijck & Van Deursen, 2014), there are those who believe it should not be too narrowly focused. Moores (2012) says, ‘I have a longstanding interest in studying everyday media uses […], yet I firmly believe that these uses are best investigated in context, alongside other everyday practices and within wider social processes’ (11). While critical media literacy is one of the steps in expanding media literacy in order to include critically analyzing the social context of biased representations, there is room to expand it further.

I use a two-step approach that focuses on the context. The first step is to include a focus on the technological medium being used. The second is similar to the call of Moores (2016) and Morley (2007; see also Krajina et al., 2014) for a non-media-centric media literacy that goes beyond a focus on representation and skills. Morley suggest de-centering media from media studies so we can ‘understand better the ways in which media processes and everyday life are interwoven with each other’ (200). Investigating the aspect of the medium itself is a first step that moves beyond a focus on media representation and skills. Following this, I create an approach using fields outside of media literacy in order to bring together concepts that help situate media literacy in a broader context, which I call a posthuman approach, and can be considered a fifth approach to media literacy.

The Medium as Non-neutral Environment

The first step in enhancing media literacy is to extend beyond the primary concern with media content to begin exploring how the content is entangled with the specific medium itself. Currently, when a medium is discussed, the discussion generally focuses on ways to categorize the content mediated by that particular medium. For instance, in Figure 2.2 the second concept is format. The core concept states, ‘Media messages are constructed using a creative language with its own rules’, the emphasis being on language rather than the medium itself. This reflects media literacy’s primary focus on representation and its lack of attention on the medium. Not only is it beneficial to focus on the content and social context of media messages (i.e., critical media literacy), but we should also pay attention to the effects of the actual technology itself.

Marshall McLuhan’s focus on the medium can be credited for drawing a focus to and interest in media education. Jolls and Wilson (2014: 69) write,

In Canada, the pioneering work of communications expert Marshall McLuhan in the 1940s through the 1960s created a foundation upon which many of our current ideas about media literacy are built. McLuhan was aware of the profound impact of communications technologies on our lives, our societies and our future. His famous idea, that the ‘medium is the message’ taught us to recognize that the form through which a message is conveyed is as important as the content of the message. […] McLuhan’s theory was based on the idea that each medium has its own technological ‘grammar’ or bias that shapes and creates a message in a unique way. Different media may report the same event, but each medium will create different impressions and convey different messages.

One of the few media literacy organizations that does include a focus on the medium is Canada’s AML. Their Eight Key Concepts of media literacy3 includes three where the medium is pointed out (bold was added):

  1. Media construct reality
  2. Media construct versions of reality (biases of medium and creator)
  3. Audiences negotiate meaning
  4. Media have economic implications
  5. Media communicate values messages
  6. Media communicate political and social messages
  7. Form and content are closely related in each medium
  8. Each medium has a unique aesthetic form

However, the aspect of the medium is not mentioned in their Triangled Questions document,4 which they describe as a tool for teaching media literacy. This misses an opportunity to include a focus on the medium, which—at least implicitly—tends to view the objects of ICTs in an instrumental manner, as neutral carriers (Mason, 2016).

The issue of neutrality brings up how media has been judged in the past. Often, there is a binary approach, where media is perceived as either neutral (it has no effect) or determining (it has great effect). This way of perceiving media can be used to analyze both the content of the media or the medium itself. The protectionist approach and critical media literacy approach (cf. above) are generally concerned with the determining aspects of the media, while the media arts-based education and media literacy movement are more neutral.

One way to move beyond the binary approach of either neutral or determining is through the idea of non-neutrality. This stance acknowledges media’s effect on human subjects (and can be applied to both content and medium), but refrains from an absolute determining stance. According to Melvin Kranzberg (1986), ‘Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral’ (545). However, the non-neutrality acknowledged by Kellner and Share (2007) focuses on the content rather than the material technology: ‘Media are thus not neutral disseminators of information because the nature of the construction and interpretation processes entails bias and social influence’ (12).

One of the gaps in media literacy that I am addressing is the non-neutrality of the material technology: the medium. Two media-related fields of study that I include in order to demonstrate this are media ecology and the philosophical approach of postphenomenology. Researchers in these fields are not the only advocates supporting a non-neutral view of technology (cf. Feenberg, 1999, 2017; Latour, 1999; Puech, 2016; Williams, 2004), but they provide two approaches that help to create an inclusive understanding of the non-neutrality of media technologies. My stance is that a balanced approach, combining content analysis and technological mediation, can help media literacy be more effective.

One way to help keep this balanced approach in mind is through the analogy McLuhan often used, that of figure and ground (McLuhan et al., 1977). ‘Simply stated, figure is what one notices within an environment, whereas ground consists of the things one ignores’ (Mason, 2019: 4). In the case of Masterman’s (1980) work on television, it is the content or message that is the figure. However, the medium of the television is the ground for the content. The medium plays an important role in shaping the content, and it should be one of the foci of media literacy, along with the content. McLuhan (McLuhan et al., 1977) uses the figure/ground analogy in order to help us retrain our perception so that we become aware of the effects that the ‘ground’ has on us.

At one point McLuhan (McLuhan et al., 1977) explains that, ‘[…] in your own experience, you are always the figure, as long as you are conscious. The ground is always the setting in which you exist and act. The ground is never static; it is always changing. The interplay between you and this changing ground changes you’ (10). Being conscious and aware of media’s effects are in accord with the goals of media literacy. Lance Mason (2016) states, ‘because McLuhan more fully conceptualizes the non-neutrality of technologies, he provides a broader conceptualization of user agency that transcends media messages and also considers media as form or environments for engagement’ (93). Mason continues (2016: 93–94):

While critical media literacy advocates are right to insist that audiences are active appropriators of media content, ignoring the structuring role of media technologies leads them to ignore or discount the insight that the medium influences the environmental conditions within which a user transacts with the world. […] From this perspective, McLuhan’s conception of media agency could bolster the conception of critical media literacy by affording a consideration of the material environments that mediate experiences for students in particular contexts.

The technological medium contributes to the shaping of media messages and deserves to be included in a broader approach to media literacy. Lars Qvortrup (2006) states that successful communication is not a ‘natural’ but a highly improbable phenomenon, and ‘the effect of communication [medium] is to limit the improbability of communication success, and the qualities of media can be measured by their impact on communication success’ (351). McLuhan (1994) described the medium as an environment, and this environment makes up part of the context that contains media messages.

Adding Context via Domestication Theory

While domestication theory5 is outside the realm of media literacy—as it has a sociological and ethnographic focus rather than one on educating people to become media literate—it demonstrates how media studies in general can broaden its scope to include both object and context. This highlights the importance of understanding the context of where the media object exists, how it is used, and how it changes the behaviors of people who adapt to it. This example reflects what I wish to bring to media literacy through the development of an inclusive approach that situates ICTs in our everyday world in order for media users to understand the complexity of interrelations of content, technological medium, and context.

Domestication theory examines media as it is used within its environment. Silverstone (2006) created this theory—further developing it with David Morley (Morley & Silverstone, 1990), Leslie Haddon (2007), and others—through investigating how television was assimilated into homes in the U.K. The process focuses on the context, or environment, where the media is used and how that environment plays a role in understanding media. Edgar Morin (2007) describes, ‘The need for contextualization is extremely important. I would even say that it is a principle of knowledge’ (15; see also Engel, 1999). Yoni Van Den Eede (2015b) also makes the case for context saying, ‘No thing is ever perceived in isolation. One may focus on it, but it is always there in relation to a ground or field. We can, however, try to get that broader context in view’ (145).

Maren Hartmann (2006) describes how domestication theory began by analyzing the consumption of media, specifically television, and critiqued existing television research that was not ‘accounting for the complexity of culture and the social’ (83). Hartmann continues (2006: 84) by describing how, in domestication theory,

both the material and the symbolic values present in media use are researched. The most general framework was thus the contextualized processes of the integration of technologies into everyday life. This context is both complex and contingent—and this context was also still meant to include content.

Morley and Silverstone (1990) write, ‘our main objective is to recontextualize the study of television in a broader framework’ (31), with an approach that ‘defines television as an essentially domestic medium, to be understood both within the context of household and family, and within the wider context of social, political and economic realities’ (32). They conclude by stating, ‘within this formulation television’s meanings, that is the meanings of both texts and technologies, have to be understood as emergent properties of contextualized audience practices’ (31, italics in original).

Domestication stresses the attention on the everyday aspect of media and how it becomes integrated into our daily routines. Merete Lie and Knut Sørensen (1996) broaden the scope of domestication by investigating media outside of the home. They find that everywhere we go, we ‘consume technologies—or, more precisely, technical artefacts—by integrating and using them. We are also consumed by the artefacts when they gain our attention and have us react to them and become occupied by their abilities, functions, and forms’ (8).

How domestication theory engages with complexity is also an important concept, one that is expanded upon in Chapter 4. Thomas Berker et al. (2006: 1) describe what happens when we study media relations in context:

The emergence of the domestication concept represented a shift away from models which assumed the adoption of new innovations to be rational, linear, monocausal and technologically determined. Rather, it presented a theoretical framework and research approach, which considered the complexity of everyday life and technology’s place within its dynamics, rituals, rules, routines and patterns.

This complexity has created problems for domestication theory. While it has been well developed as a theory, Hartmann (2006) notes that it ‘was then lost in the “application” of the domestication concept in actual research’ (81). According to Hartmann, the ‘question that keeps reappearing and that has not yet been solved is how to adequately research the complexity of the combination of media content and media context to paint a picture of the overall whole’ (89). What is needed is a way to situate and contextualize the complexity of our media-saturated, everyday lives.

Concluding Thoughts

Today, much of media literacy focuses on fake news and the challenge this trend presents to democracy (cf. Jolls & Johnsen, 2017; Livingstone, 2018). People are mediated by technologies of all sorts,6 one of the most prevalent being the smartphone. The news is not only mediated; it is re-mediated into smaller and smaller bits, which are typically cut and re-cut, decontextualized and then re-contextualized with different meanings (cf. Chouliaraki, 2013, 2017). The many different mediums disseminate these bits in their own unique way. Ubiquitous ICTs have transformed the way most people live, especially in the developed Western world. However, people are not only mediated by ICTs in general, but also by cultural relations through power structures, social norms, language, gender, race, and many other groupings of relations. This is where critical media literacy comes into play and where there is much overlap with critical posthumanism (cf. Chapter 4).

I am not the only researcher calling for expanding the field of media literacy. There has been a push from within the field for broadening its scope, returning to a more interdisciplinary approach. Morley (2009) writes of the need to ‘develop a model for the integrated analysis of communications, which places current technological changes in historical perspective’ (114). To do so means avoiding the simplified and ‘overdrawn binary divides between the worlds of the “old” and the “new” media’ (115). It is critical for media literacy to develop a framework in order to keep an overarching perspective on the constant onslaught of new ICTs. In the words of Eric McLuhan (2009: 12),

When change is relatively slow, the need for training awareness is not so pressing. But when major new media appear every three or four years, the need becomes a matter of survival. Each new medium is a new culture and each demands a new spin on identity; each takes root in one or another group in society, and as these flow in and out of each other the abrasive interfaces generate much violence. It is urgent that we begin to study all of the forms of knowing, now called literacies.

My approach follows several amodern—not modern but not postmodern—philosophies (postphenomenology, philosophical posthumanism, complexity theory, etc.). I balance the binaries of technological determinism and technological neutrality. One of the most effective ways to reduce technological determinism—following Michel Foucault (1988), Michel Puech (2016), and others—is to become aware of the systems that have influence on us, and this is where media literacy can excel. John Culkin (1967: 51) stresses the importance of being media literate:

The environments set up by different media are not just containers for people; they are processes which shape people. Such influence is deterministic only if it is ignored. There is no inevitability as long as there is a willingness to contemplate what is happening.

As critical media literacy helps to fill the critical social theory gap within media literacy, my aim is to create an approach that can be used by media literacy in order to situate the wider range of effects of media that a mediate literate person should be aware of: content, medium, and context. As Lemke (2006) states, ‘We need conceptual frameworks to help us cope with the complexity and the novelty of these new multimedia constellations’ (5).

The first step towards an expansion of media literacy is developing an understanding of the co-constituting effects of technological relations, especially embodied relations, which I investigate in the next chapter. Both media ecology and postphenomenology help us keep in mind the way media and technologies enable and constrain our abilities, allowing us to have more realistic expectations for complex media environments. This aspect of co-constitution is the focus of the next two chapters. First, I look at the medium/technology side (Chapter 3) and then focus on which subject we are discussing that is being constituted by media relations (Chapter 4). This is not the subject of the transmission model of communication, but the subject of the constitutive model (Craig, 1999) and the transformation model (McLuhan, 2008). We are not standalone entities simply transporting discreet messages back and forth through various media; rather, we are being constituted within a complexity of mediated relations.


1 Founder and director of the Media Education Lab: https://mediaeducationlab.com/

2 Canada’s AML (aml.ca) being one of the few exceptions that still retain some focus on the medium.

3 Canada’s Association of Media Literacy (https://aml.ca/resources/essential-framework/)

5 For clarity, I will only use the term domestication theory. However, there has also been research in describing double (cf. Livingstone, 2007) and triple (cf. Courtois et al., 2012, 2013; Hartmann, 2006) articulation that is usually included in domestication theory discussions.

6 Livingstone (2009) writes on the mediation of everything, stating, ‘distinct aspects of the concept of mediation invite communication scholars to attend to the specific empirical, historical and political implication of the claim that “everything is mediated”’ (1).

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