The standard definition of media literacy is the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, produce, communicate and act across a variety of media forms. In the United States alone, there exists many different perspectives on how to media educate youth, but not all of them agree on what extent youth audiences are active participants. PLAY moves beyond a passive approach to young people, media, and learning. We educate learners of all ages according to five governing principles:

Audiences actively interpret media.
Meaning does not reside in the text itself, but is a product of the interaction between text and audience. Audiences interpret meaning based on situational elements such as geography, culture, age, class, gender, time of day, and the context in which they interact with the medium. Various media forms resonate in different ways, depending upon the experiences, values and knowledge that audiences bring to it. Although audiences differ in their perceptions, understandings and reactions to media, the key to media literacy is to educate them to be aware of their own subjectivity as well as the subjectivity of other audiences.

All media are constructions.
Media are neither reality nor windows to the world. Instead, they are carefully constructed products—from newspaper headlines to nature documentaries. A media literate person is aware that many decisions are made in the construction of each media product and that even the most realistic images represent someone’s interpretation of reality. Media literacy also involves the skill of producing media—so that youth in particular can offer their interpretation of reality.

All media are owned.
All media are owned by individuals or institutions that have historical and social contexts that may be concealed from the general public. Institutional elements from production to distribution influence the content as well as audience perceptions of the content. It is important to call attention to the idea that commercial institutions are owned and ultimately operated according to the principles that will generate the highest profit.

All media express values.
Media are carefully constructed products that represent a particular view of actual people, places, events, and ideas. The language of newspapers, magazines, television and the internet use shortcuts to meaning through stereotyping—the consequences of which may be oppressive for certain groups of people. Questions to ask of each medium are: “Whose story is told?” “Whose story is left out?” and “To what extent is the representative of reality?”

All media adhere to codes and conventions.
Whether it be through editing, narration, sequencing, camera angles, soundtrack or timing—each media form has a language of its own. Magazine editors use different codes and conventions as compared to video producers as compared to web designers. The languages used influence the meaning of the media text.

Media literacy education refers to the process of teaching media literacy. Watch this incisive video produced by PBS in partnership with the National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE) that defines media literacy in practice:

According to the National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE) the purpose of media literacy education is “to help 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.”

NAMLE provides Core Principles of Media Literacy Education and a set of Key Questions (in both English and Spanish) to help educators and parents cultivate media literacy in their classrooms, homes, and communities.

Additionally, we recommend the following resources to conceptually understand media literacy and its role in education: