Shashidhar Nanjundaiah: Clearing the Earth Around Media Literacy

03 Sep,2020

By Shashidhar Nanjundaiah


Last week, I was invited to a panel to evaluate scholarly papers at a conference on media literacy, conducted online by a prestigious university. My most lasting takeaway from it was the pressing need to clear the earth around what media literacy actually means and intends to do. Paper after paper either linked the term media literacy to concepts that are conventionally outside its purview or described it as an exercise in decoding fake news. Recommendations in the papers included using eclectic media archives in the classroom to ethical journalism.


Some conflicting understanding of media literacy as technology training for trainers and media literacy as public awareness persists, and this is becoming an institutionalised confusion. A part of the problem is in the understanding of media literacy as an effort to train teachers, for example, in the use of media technology in the classroom. Even some public programmes are reported to have attempted to do so.


On the other hand, efforts by departments within media organisations and independent practitioners have started making efforts at fact-checking and aiming at infusing better information literacy. The problem is that media literacy is both and these functions are joined at the hip.



This duality puts in jeopardy the definition of media literacy as the ability to decode and encode media messages. As a fledgling subject in India, this problem must be resolved sooner than later. The need to define and conceptualise media literacy as a subject is urgent because it should be considered integral to education at various levels was not lost on anyone.

Some scholars have situated media literacy as an element with other forms of literacy such as digital, information and visual literacy. In the broadest terms, media literacy should be defined as a two-pronged exercise: Building an understanding of media functions and practice, and inculcating the ability to practise constructing and disseminating messages rightfully and responsibly. It is not the same as media education, which I delineate from the former as learning to be media professionals.

The difference between literacy and education is that while literacy is a fundamental awareness and understanding, education is deeper and more elaborate. Literacy is also more toolsy and practice-driven. Language literacy is an example. Literacy is about the how. Education provides a much broader and deeper understanding of the history, values and predictions. We could argue that literacy is heuristic (dealing with strategies to solve problems), while education is hermeneutic (explanatory and interpretive).



Firstly, media literacy is instructive. Like any other form of literacy, it should be seen as the ability to construct and deconstruct language and context. Among media audiences, media literacy is a continuum and a constantly evolving process. These days, it seems the media itself is news, so many people at large understand the production and economics—and thereby the motivation—behind media messages. This is an evolving phenomenon, but when intervened by instruction in media literacy, it is possible to accelerate the awareness. That is why an increasing number of practitioners and scholars—including this author—have campaigned for a systematic approach to building that awareness as a citizen’s right to know.

Secondly, it is important to understand that media literacy is a state to be achieved. Perhaps it is idealistic and tricky because of changing goal posts. The consumer can never really catch up with the producer, and that’s strategically delightful. Media literacy itself is not the practice of anything. While it should lead to responsible practice, it is really the construct from which various practices can ensue. Examples of such practices are detecting fake news, deep-reading news stories, constructing mediated messages while being aware of its consumptional consequences, and sharing or relaying others’ mediated messages with the responsibility of that awareness. These forms of practices are broad and sufficient enough to build themselves as the contours of media literacy practice.

The National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE), USA, defines the purpose of media literacy as helping “individuals of all ages develop the habits of inquiry and skills of expression that they need to be critical thinkers, effective communicators and active citizens in today’s world”. The National Council of Teachers of English, NCTE/IRA Standards for the English Language Arts, USA, defines media literacy as “being active, critical, and creative users not only of print and spoken language but also of the visual language of film and television, commercial and political advertising, photography, and more”. Those two definitions, in combination, are perhaps the definitions closest to my understanding of media literacy and to the design of a curriculum.

To a reader steeped in media strategy and media practice, building transparency and awareness in their audience should not come as strategically perilous and operationally challenging. On the contrary, such deeper understanding can only add to more meaningful media audience engagement. Media corporations must meet media literacy not merely by the noble act of establishing fact-check desks, but by strategically demystifying why they do what they do.


This episode of the column on media literacy was triggered from an online conference on Media Literacy, where the author was asked to evaluate papers and presentations. As founder of BeingResponsible, Shashidhar Nanjundaiah is building and delivering new curricula at schools and colleges in a brave attempt to instil Responsible Media Literacy. Earlier, Prof Nanjundaiah has led media institutes of repute to positions of leadership. You can reach him at This column appears every other Thursday on MxMIndia. His views here are personal



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