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Reading Between the Lines: Media Literacy

Media literacy is the ability to “critically consume and create media” in order to “better… understand the complex messages we receive from television, radio, newspapers, magazines, books, billboards, signs, packaging, marketing materials, video games, recorded music, the Internet and other forms of media” ( New Mexico Media Literacy Project). The messages presented in advertisements and music videos are often more than meets the untrained-eye.

Basic Concepts of Media Literacy

Media construct our culture

Our society and culture – even our perception of reality – is shaped by the information and images we receive via the media. A few generations ago, our culture’s storytellers were people – family, friends, and others in our community. For many people today, the most powerful storytellers are television, movies, music, video games, and the Internet.

Media messages affect our thoughts, attitudes and actions

We don’t like to admit it, but all of us are affected by advertising, news, movies, pop music, video games, and other forms of media. That’s why media are such a powerful cultural force, and why the media industry is such big business.

Media use “the language of persuasion.”

All media messages try to persuade us to believe or do something. News, documentary films, and nonfiction books all claim to be telling the truth. Advertising tries to get us to buy products. Novels and TV dramas go to great lengths to appear realistic. To do this, they use specific techniques (like flattery, repetition, fear, and humor) we call “the language of persuasion.”

Media construct fantasy worlds

While fantasy can be pleasurable and entertaining, it can also be harmful. Movies, TV shows, and music videos sometimes inspire people to do things that are unwise, anti-social, or even dangerous. At other times, media can inspire our imagination. Advertising constructs a fantasy world where all problems can be solved with a purchase. Media literacy helps people to recognize fantasy and constructively integrate it with reality.

No one tells the whole story.

Every media maker has a point of view. Every good story highlights some information and leaves out the rest. Often, the effect of a media message comes not only from what is said, but from what part of the story is not told.

Media messages contain “texts” and “subtexts.”

The text is the actual words, pictures and/or sounds in a media message. The subtext is the hidden and underlying meaning of the message.

Media messages reflect the values and viewpoints of media makers

Everyone has a point of view. Our values and viewpoints influence our choice of words, sounds and images we use to communicate through media. This is true for all media makers, from a preschooler’s crayon drawing to a media conglomerate’s TV news broadcast.

Individuals construct their own meanings from media

Although media makers attempt to convey specific messages, people receive and interpret them differently, based on their own prior knowledge and experience, their values, and their beliefs. This means that people can create different subtexts from the same piece of media. All meanings and interpretations are valid and should be respected.

Media messages can be decoded

By “deconstructing” media, we can figure out who created the message, and why. We can identify the techniques of persuasion being used and recognize how media makers are trying to influence us. We notice what parts of the story are not being told, and how we can become better informed.

Media literate youth and adults are active consumers of media

Many forms of media – like television – seek to create passive, impulsive consumers. Media literacy helps people consume media with a critical eye, evaluating sources, intended purposes, persuasion techniques, and deeper meanings. (New Mexico Media Literacy Project,

Examples of Media Deconstructed

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Who is this advertisement targeting?

This ad is probably targeting men since an attractive woman is the focus.

What is the subtext (underlying meaning) of the ad?

It seems that the ad is trying to get men to see that there are attractive women at the casino and that maybe they could meet some of those women.

How is this ad attempting to persuade the consumer?

The use of the “beautiful people” persuasion technique is in play. The consumer is being persuaded to think that attractive women spend time at casinos.

Is this a healthy and/or unhealthy media message?

This is an unhealthy media message because they are using attractive young women to get men to go to the casino.

What related stories are NOT told by this media example?

It is not showing the variety of people that may be at the casino or the possible consequences of gambling.

Who is this advertisement targeting?


What is the subtext (underlying meaning) of the ad?

The subtext is that if a man drinks Jose Cuervo, they’re going to be surrounded by many thin, attractive women.

How is this ad attempting to persuade the consumer?

By saying that they’re going to be surrounded by beautiful people, that it will be easier to interact with women (simple solutions), and the use of the “band wagon,” which is the idea that everyone is doing it.

Is this a healthy and/or unhealthy media message?

Unhealthy because it’s giving consumers the impression that by drinking this product, they’re bound to be popular and have a good night.

What related stories are NOT told by this media example?

Consumers could become sick from excessive use of this product.

Who is this advertisement targeting?

Both men and women. Men because they may think that getting a nice car may help them to be more popular. Women may see an attractive guy and want to purchase the car.

What is the subtext (underlying meaning) of the ad?

That if you buy the car you can be like T.I. (or another celebrity) or attract people with a high status.

How is this ad attempting to persuade the consumer?

The ad is using beautiful people to help sell the car, and the idea of “band wagon” because, in theory, everyone wants to be famous and drive fancy cars.

Is this a healthy and/or unhealthy media message?

This ad is not necessarily healthy or unhealthy.

What related stories are NOT told by this media example?

It does not express the cost of the car. [/one_half] For more information on how to become more media literate, check out the Media Literacy pamphlet on this page or request a presentation for your class!