Academic Exchange Quarterly     Fall    2005    ISSN 1096-1453    Volume  9, Issue  3

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Media Literacy in Journalism Education Curriculum


Paul Mihailidis, University of Maryland

Ray Hiebert, University of Maryland


Paul Mihailidis, a doctoral student at the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism, researches media literacy in higher education Ray Hiebert is Professor and Dean Emeritus at the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism



As a curricular initiative, media literacy presumes to go beyond base theoretical and ethical journalism courses by providing student-outcome, reflexive engagement that enables students to become active participants in an increasingly media-saturated society.  In reviewing the current state of media literacy in higher education and hesitancies to its conceptualized benefits to higher education, some light can be shed as to why journalism departments have yet to fully acknowledge how media literacy can enhance their curriculum.


Introduction: media literacy and higher education


As a term, media literacy has mostly been applied to only K-12 education (Hobbs 1998).  Christ and Potter (1998) believe that for those in higher education, the process of defining media literacy as an entity requires teachers to look introspectively at what and how they teach.  Furthermore, Christ and Potter (1998) broadly identify the main restriction concerning media literacy and its potential value to higher education programs in the U.S.: “Yet, even with the reemergence of media literacy as a key area of interest, the construct itself remains a complex and dynamic phenomenon.”


That media literacy, conceptually, is complex and theoretically-based, makes its place in journalism education quite ambiguous. This paper will provide an overview of the current state of media literacy in U.S. higher education, specifically in journalism education curriculum, and outline some of the difficulties confronted in understanding media literacy’s potential in higher education.  Patricia Hinchey (2003), in her introduction to “Teaching Media Literacy” touches upon the ambiguity that the term ‘media literacy’ connotes. That media literacy can provide engagement with students in raising critical awareness of the media’s role and impact on society is strong ground for its acknowledgement by academics. Her experience is as follows:


It was so last year when, after several years of teaching not only traditional composition and literature courses but also educational philosophy and methods courses, I found myself teaching media literacy to undergraduate and graduate students. During the course of the year I learned that invariably when a colleague asked “What are you teaching?” and I answered “teaching media literacy,” I could anticipate the follow up question, “What is Media Literacy?”



Media literacy on the rise in the U.S.


Media literacy in U.S. higher education has been gaining significant recognition as an established concept and curricular initiative. Increasing numbers of studies concerning media education in the U.S. (Pack 2002, Hobbs & Frost 2003, Chauvin 2003, Considine 2004, Christ 2004, Silverblatt 2004) are drawing attention towards its cause and purpose while further widening its scope. 


Concrete courses and/or programs in media literacy continue to be developed in the United States.  Silverblatt et al (2002) reported that 61 universities across the United States offer media literacy curricula in their institutions, 34 of which offer it as a separate course, and 27 that claim it is integrated across the curriculum. Master’s degrees in media literacy are offered at five institutions in the U.S. Only one university offers a bachelor’s degree in media literacy, and furthermore three doctoral programs with a possible focus in media literacy exist. The courses or contents lie predominantly in schools of communication, but can be found quite spread out amongst disciplines (Silverblatt et al, 2002).  Also, increasing numbers of media literacy institutions outside of higher education are forming, which provide resources, literature and support for parents, teachers, and professionals aiming to become more ‘media literate’[1]. While media education initiatives appear more frequently, some concerns still exist with regard to the extent that higher education institutions are committed to recognizing media literacy as an essential program unit and offering courses in their curriculum (Silverblatt et al, 2002). 


Why media literacy in the curriculum?


Progress has to rely on education. The individual must be made to know the social facts more accurately, including his own true interests and the ideals he holds on a deeper level of his sphere of valuations…I am quite aware that this prescription is nothing less and nothing more than the age-old liberal faith that “knowledge will make us free”                                                      (Gunnar Myrdal, 1958, 80-81)


Increased media access has exposed our society in such a way that “knowledge” has become the fourth factor of economic production (Moore, 2001). With such direct penetration of information from such a vast number of avenues, educating society about the media can lead to greater participation and activeness in our democracy.


Media literacy, as a survival tool, aims to foster engagement and critical reflection about media that provides students the knowledge and awareness to become more curious and active in society.  Under these tenets media literacy can be seen as prioritizing the development of students’ analytical and critical skills as they increasingly engage the media (McMahon 2003).  David Considine (2002) states:


While more young people have access to the Internet and other media than any generation in history, they do not necessarily possess the ethics, the intellectual skills, or the predisposition to critically analyze and evaluate their relationship with these technologies or the information they encounter. Good hand/eye co-ordination and the ability to multitask are not substitutes for critical thinking


For media literacy to be seriously considered as part of higher education curriculum, it must first and foremost be clearly defined as to its place and relevance in university curriculum. 


The definition of media literacy in North America, agreed upon at the 1992 National Leadership Conference on Media Literacy, is stated as follows: “[media literacy] is the ability to decode, analyze, evaluate and produce communication in a variety of forms” (Aufderheide, 1993). This definition has been widely adopted and carries much relevance to this day. Considine (2002) points out that one reason for this is the benefit of its accessibility in curriculum:


The definition has a pragmatic purpose. It is short, relatively easy to understand, and, more importantly, can be readily positioned within educational institutions. Rather than vying for space in an already crowded curriculum beset with the demands of computer literacy and information literacy, media literacy presents itself as compatible with and relevant to its potential competitors


With this definition instated and widely accepted, it seems accurate and appropriate to allow media literacy to function on many different levels of education, including post-secondary education.  In the U.S., where the media landscape is vast and civic participation remains quite low (Milner, 2002), media literacy education could prove beneficial in engaging students with the media and its social implications.  In journalism specifically, where students learn the theories behind media industries, and the ethics and standards of their profession, a media literacy curriculum can further their understanding of and engagement with the media.


However, the first step in media literacy being acknowledged in university curriculum is for the curricula-builders, scholars and academics in journalism/communication programs to see its potential benefits to society and their educational platforms.  This entails making aware the tenets and intricacies of media literacy that prove its worth to a curriculum.  However, as William Christ (2004) states, this is no easy task:


Most faculty in higher education media programs would probably argue that they teach students to become media literate.  If push came to shove, however, they might not be able to articulate exactly what they mean by media literacy let alone how to measure it as a student-learning outcome


Why Media literacy in journalism education?


With the media playing such an essential role in American politics, how journalists create the news becomes even more significant (Lens 2002)


It is no coincidence that as the media landscape continues to stratify and expand, more students enroll in departments and programs dealing with the media.  Journalism departments, then, have an added significance to their education.  With media saturation and information access so heavily apparent, journalism schools must re-evaluate their curricula to see if the practical and theoretical teachings are properly satisfying the demands of the field. Departments now have the burden of teaching why the media works as it does, and its accompanying social significance and overarching civic role in democracy. Here is where media literacy finds its significance in journalism education. 


Whereas theory, ethics, and society courses aptly teach about the role of the journalist, ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ journalistic practices, and the nature of how the media function in society, media literacy engages students in a unique way.  As a student-outcome centered pedagogical tool, media literacy actively connects and informs students to become critical and aware decision-makers and active participants in society through a deep engagement with media.  In this regard, media literacy offers a new dynamic to journalism education, one which moves beyond base theory and teacher based dissemination and introduces activism and student outcome-based participation.


Where added value comes into play is in seeing media literacy as the connection between the practical role of the journalist and the theoretical construct within which the journalist exists. As media influence and saturation grow, journalism schools need to educate about the implications of such penetration.   As journalism schools continue to grow, they must offer a home in which media effects on culture, democracy, society and humanity are taught.  Media literacy serves as the adherent between such practical and theoretical components.


Herbert Zettl (1998) believes that anything having so much influence on individuals or society as a whole deserves to be critically and carefully analyzed and examined.  He states:

The knowledge of how a specific mass medium such as television operates, how we react to its specific audiovisual stimuli, and how we use it to clarify, intensify, and interpret significant events around us is an essential prerequisite for the effective and responsible production and discerning consumption of media messages


For many media educators and critics, media literacy is considered an effective antidote to the potential influence the media may have on society.  The vision of media literacy, as Thoman and Jolls (2004) write, is “to put all individuals, ultimately, in charge of their own learning, empowering them to take an active rather than a passive role in acquiring new knowledge and skills.”  Here is where media literacy can make students more aware citizens, more participatory in their democracy and cognizant of the media messages they encounter on a daily basis. 


Finding common ground


Herbert Zettl’s 1998 scholarly publication, Contextual Media Aesthetics as the Basis for Media Literacy, and Christ and Potters 1998, Media Literacy, Media Education and the Academy, provide two relevant definitions of media literacy (taken from earlier scholars) that seem relevant to media literacy’s place in journalism curriculum:

From Zettl (1998):


Media literacy is concerned with helping students develop an informal and critical understanding of the nature of mass media, the techniques used by them, and the impact of these techniques.  More specifically, it is education that aims to increase the students’ understanding and enjoyment of how the media work, how they produce meaning, how they are organized, and how they construct reality. Media Literacy also aims to provide students with the ability to create media products (Center for Advanced Technology, 1997: from Zettl 1998)


From Christ and Potter (1998):


[Media literacy is the ability] “to access, analyze, evaluate and communicate messages in a variety of forms” (Aufderheide, 1993, p.xx), [and that a media literate person] “can decode, evaluate, analyze, and produce both print and electronic media” (Aufderheide, 1997, p.97). Furthermore, they agreed that most conceptualizations include the following elements: Media are constructed and construct reality; media have commercial implications; media have ideological and political implications; form and content are related in each medium, each of which has a unique aesthetic, codes and conventions; and receivers negotiate meaning in media (Aufderheide, 1997, p. 80; from Christ and Potter, 1998)


These definitions are provided as a starting point in renewing the push for a unified approach towards understanding the nature of media literacy and why it is important in journalism curriculum.  While media literacy is becoming increasingly implemented as a course and initiative in higher education and journalism education, it remains fractious as to how it is defined and understood by the journalism academics in charge of courses and curriculum in U.S. universities and colleges. 


A positive aspect of media literacy in the United States has been the growing number of initiatives and participants in nation-wide media education conferences. Media literacy and all its positive aspects must be made apparent to journalism programs so that all are well aware of media literacy’s importance in enhancing learning beyond information dominated, top-down theory and ethics courses.  Media literacy has become ever more important in light of the current growth of the media industry and the accompanying growth in journalism/communication student enrolment. As media saturation increases, having a way to actively and critically make sense and deconstruct the constant media penetration that society is subject to can be realized in educating our future media practitioners about these issues.  With a working conceptualization of media literacy as an added layer of curricular enhancement, progress and unification are possible, and perhaps probable.


Revisiting Patricia Hinchey (2003), she defends the inclusion of media literacy by stating that, in a real sense, we have no choice about whether media will be involved in our students’ education. She further states:


Internationally as well as nationally, extensive coalitions for years have been defending, endorsing and promoting media literacy as essential, yet it remains off the radar screen of many educators, including administrators who can play a crucial role in enabling or thwarting curricular activities


More and more initiatives are developing in the United States, yet departments are still hazy-eyed when viewing media literacy as a prospectively important initiative within higher education.


Conclusion: A unified understanding


This paper aims not to call for immediate inclusion of media literacy in journalism education. Rather, it is an attempt to reveal the ‘added-value’ of teaching future media practitioners how to engage with and understand their constant subjection to and interaction with media. Under such a premise, educators can become more aware of the relevance and impact of their teaching experiences. At the same time, students will have the opportunity to actively, reflexively, and directly engage with media. To understand how media literacy, as a student-outcome based method of ‘teaching’ and ‘learning,’ can provide a new theoretical and critical lens is important in seeing how it can help prepare students for the important weight that will soon fall on their shoulders.



End notes


[1] Examples include:,,,




Aufderheide, P. (Ed.). (1993). Media Literacy: A report of the national leadership conference on media literacy. Aspen, CO: Aspen Institute.


Aufderheide, P. (1997). Media Literacy: From a report of the national leadership conference on media literacy. In R. Kubey, Media Literacy in the information age (pp. 79-86). New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.


Chauvin, B.A. (2003). Visual or Media Literacy? Journal of Visual Literacy, Vol. 23, No.2, 119-138.


Christ, William, G. (2004). Assessment, Media Literacy Standards, and Higher Education.  American Behavioral Scientist, 48, 92-96.


Christ, William, G., and Potter, W. James. (1998). Media Literacy, Media Education, and the Academy. Journal of Communication, winter, Vol. 48, 5-15.


Considine, David. (2004). “If you Build it, they will come:” Developing a Graduate Program in Media Literacy in a College of Education. American Behavorial Scientist, 48, 97-107.


Considine, David. (2002). Media Literacy: National Developments and International Origins. Journal of Popular Television and Film, spring, 5p.


Hinchey, Patricia, H. (2003). Introduction: Teaching Media Literacy: Not if, But Why and How. The Clearing House, Vol. 76, No. 6, July/August, 268-270.


Hobbs, Renee. (1998). The Seven Great Debates in the Media Literacy Movements. Journal of Communication. Winter, Vol. 48, 16-32.


Hobbs, Renee. & Frost, Richard. (2003). Measuring the acquisition of media-literacy skills. Reading Research Quarterly. Vol. 38, 3, July/August/September, 330-355.


Lens, Vicki (2002). Sound Bites, Spin and Social Change: Analyzing the News Media in the Classroom. Journal of Teaching in Social Work, Vol. 22(3/4), 39-53.


McMahon, Barrie. (2003). Relevance and Rigor in Media Education. National Media Education Conference, Keynote Presentation, Baltimore, June 28-July 1, 27p.


Milner, Henry. (2002). Civic Literacy: How Informed Citizens Make Democracy Work. University Press of New England, Hanover, NH.


Moore, Michael,G. (2001). Distance Education in the United States: the State of the Art.  From a series of lectures of educational use of ICT and virtual education. Retrieved winter 2004, from:


Myrdal, Gunnar. (1958). Beyond the Welfare State. London. Duckworth


Pack, T. (2002). Media literacy: educational organizations advocate enlightened media consumption. Link-Up. May 2002, v19 i3, 10.


Silverblatt, Art. (2004). Media as Social Institution. American Behavorial Scientist, 48, 35-41.


Silverblatt, Art., Baker, Frank., Tyner, Kathleen. & Stuhlman, Laura. (2002). Media Literacy in U.S. Institutions of Higher Education. Retrieved Spring 2005; Published on Webster University: School of Communications Web site:


Thoman, Elizabeth. & Jolls, Tessa. (2004). Media Literacy—A National Priority for a Changing World. American Behavioral Scientist, 48, 18-29.


Tugend, Alina (2003). Reading Between the Lines. American Journalism Review, March.


Zettl, Herbert (1998). Contextual Media Aesthetics as the Basis for Media Literacy. Journal of Communication, winter, 81-95.