Evelien A. M. Schilder: Theoretical Underpinnings of Media Literacy from Communication and Learning Theory

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Evelien Schilder is completing a Ph.D. in Instructional Design and Technology at Virginia Tech with a background in communications and media literacy. She has earned her Bachelor and Master’s degree in Communication Science at the University of Amsterdam, and has studied and taught media literacy and media production at Appalachian State University.

Media literacy resides within numerous disciplines such as Gestalt psychology, communication, journalism, linguistics, semantics, rhetoric, anthropology, science, engineering, literacy criticism, art criticism, film studies, sociology, humanities, and literacy education (Fox, 1994, 2005). In this paper, the focus will mainly be on theoretical underpinnings from communication theory and learning theory. Inevitably, because of the interdisciplinary nature of the field, theories related to these other fields are occasionally referred to as well.

First, a broad range of major communication theories that have influenced media literacy education are described. Subsequently, theoretical foundations mainly coming from education and learning theory are described. A shift in focus from one theoretical basis to another will be explained next, as well as a comparison of communication theory, learning theory, and their intersections. This is concluded by explaining media literacy key concepts that are often said to form the theoretical foundation of media literacy education.

Theoretical Underpinnings of Media Literacy: Communication Theory

The first author concerned with the theoretical underpinnings of media literacy as it relates to communication theory appears to be James Anderson. In 1980, he published an article called The Theoretical Lineage of Critical Viewing Curricula. In this article, Anderson writes about the theoretical foundations of media literacy education related to critically viewing television. He argues that the theoretical foundations of this process most closely align with mass media research, such as behavioral effect research, uses and gratification research, and research on cultural understanding concerned with negotiating meaning. Anderson states, however, that actual curricula in critical viewing do not have an overarching theoretical perspective that characterizes them and that teachers often interpret instructional objectives according to their own needs (Anderson, 1980).

Piette and Giroux (1998) specifically write about the theoretical underpinnings of media literacy related to all media from a communication theory perspective. Similar to Anderson (1980), these authors argue that most media literacy education programs do not present themselves as indebted to theory. Interestingly, however, they do heavily depend on media theory. In a book chapter entitled The Theoretical Foundations of Media Education Programs, Piette and Giroux (1998) describe seven major mass communication approaches that are at the basis of many media literacy programs. These approaches differ on the amount of influence that is attributed to the media (powerful or not powerful) and the nature of the audience (active or passive). In addition to describing these major research paradigms, Piette and Giroux describe six existing media education programs from Europe and the United States. They argue that each of the mass communication theories has formed the theoretical underpinnings of these different media literacy curricula. Certain theories were not more common than others. They therefore doubt whether media literacy education can actually be viewed as an autonomous field with a distinctive theoretical framework. They argue that media literacy education rather fits within the broader framework of theoretical advances in mass communication research.

Theoretical Underpinnings of Media Literacy: Communication Theory

The stimulus response (S-R) model. The earliest concerns about media effects arose at the end of the 19th century and into the early 1930s. At that time, the effects of media messages were seen as direct or following the hypodermic needle model (Wartella & Reeves, 2003). This latter term was introduced by the political scientist Harold Lasswell. He argued that media messages have the same impact on any individual (Wartella & Reeves, 2003). Lasswell (1948) is famous for his statement “who says what in which channel to whom with what effect” (p. 37) which assumes a one-way route of communication. Back in that time, media were seen as powerful and the audience as passive. The underlying assumptions behind this linear model of communication effects of that time are that mass media reach everyone following a one direction road (sender to receiver) and that there is a direct link between the content of the message and the influence on the user (De Boer & Brennecke, 2003). In addition, the receiver is perceived as passive and uncritical. During the time that this model was dominant, there was also no doubt about the presumably bad influence of the media (De Boer & Brennecke, 2003). This model has often been used in early media literacy education. By some media literacy scholars it is currently seen as outdated, even though the idea of media being powerful has never completely vanished (Buckingham, 2003). In fact, many of the studies on health media literacy are still based on reducing harmful effects of media messages (Jeong, Cho, & Hwang, 2012; Martens, 2010).

The uses and gratifications model. Based on this model, Katz, Blumler, and Gurevitch (1973) see the public as active and goal directed. They link the need of gratification and media choice with the audience member and they argue that media compete with other sources of satisfaction. In addition, they assert that media users are able to identify their own interests and motives for mass media use, and that value judgments about the cultural significance of mass communication should be suspended while audience orientations are explored. In this last element it is assumed that certain cultural messages should not be rated better or worse than others (De Boer & Brennecke, 2003). There should be no condemning of media messages. This implies that educators should have a more open mind towards media use and popular culture in their classrooms. This last point is regarded as essential in many media literacy programs (National Association for Media Literacy Education [NAMLE], 2007).

Cultivation theory. According to Gerbner, Gross, Morgan, and Signorielli (1994) the repetitive lessons people learn from television (and other media) from infancy on are likely to become the basis for their broader world view. As education, religion, and parents were the main shapers of our symbolic environment in the past, the media can fulfill this role as well these days. As young people are often repeatedly exposed to media messages, these messages might teach certain underlying assumptions that are promoted in these media. Media effects are not seen as direct, according to this view. It could take years before media messages could help to shape the way we view our symbolic environment. Two authors who discuss this theory in the context of media literacy and body dissatisfaction are Berel and Irving (1998).

The agenda setting theory. According to McCombs and Shaw (1972), people learn about certain issues by the use of media. By watching television for example, the viewer learns which issues are regarded as important. Similar to cultivation theory, the media are therefore viewed to have an indirect influence; they do not tell us what to think, but what to think about (Piette & Giroux, 1998). Piette and Giroux claim that these viewpoints were central in a college level course on television literacy at Boston University.

While the previous four approaches are especially seen as American approaches, Piette and Giroux (1998) also describe three European mass communication approaches that have influenced the media literacy programs. Even though Piette and Giroux divide the different approaches in American and European approaches, it is important to note that researchers from different countries are increasingly aware of each other’s contributions and that barriers between different orientations are breaking down (McQuail, 2000).

The critical perspective. This perspective, which is sometimes also called the Marxist approach, assumes similar powerful effects as the S-R model. Unlike the S-R model, media are viewed from an ideological standpoint. Media, which are said to be controlled by the ruling class, are assumed to impose a repressive ideology into the consciousness of the homogenous mass (McQuail, 2000). In this sense, the audience is perceived as rather passive, while media are perceived to be powerful. Piette and Giroux (1998) claim that a media literacy program created by UNESCO was influenced by this perspective.

The “classical” semiotic approach. According to McQuail (2000), semiology is a more specific version of the more general structuralist approach. Structuralism has been developed by Ferdinand de Saussure and refers to the way meaning is constructed in texts (McQuail, 2000). Semiotics is an approach to the study of signs in culture, and of culture, as if one studies a language (Hall, 1997). Two important concepts in this approach are denotation and connotation. Denotation is the basic descriptive level of a word on which most people agree (such as a dress). Connotation relates to the associated meaning that a word may have. This connects the object to a wider, second kind of code (such as elegance or romance, in the case of a dress) (Hall, 1997). Within this approach, the media are assumed to have a powerful influence, because they have become the carrier of myths that flourish in different cultures (Piette & Giroux, 1998). According to Piette and Giroux, media can transform ideological representations into myths when denotation and connotation become one. This means that their oneness seems so natural that nobody would question it. Buckingham (2003) argues that media literacy educators have often employed semiotic methods or principles to analyze media texts. For example, Gaines (2010) describes how media messages can be demystified using a semiotic approach in his book entitled Media Literacy and Semiotics.

The cultural studies approach. The cultural studies approach is a branch of theory and research that overlaps with the media and communication field, but which has a much wider orientation (McQuail, 2000). According to McQuail, it is distinguished by a critical and humanistic orientation and a strong focus on popular culture. The media are assumed to have a powerful influence on a rather heterogeneous audience. One of the main premises is that getting meaning is problematic as meaning in any particular context is never fixed. Messages can be encoded (created) in one way, but be decoded (read or interpreted) by the audience in a different way (Hall, 1997). Audiences are therefore rather active. This approach is often adopted by media literacy scholars and organizations (Buckingham, 2003; Martens, 2010; Scharrer, 2002).

Marshall McLuhan. In addition to these seven different mass communication theories mentioned by Piette and Giroux (1998), there is another mass communication approach that is often credited as having formed the theoretical underpinnings of media literacy education (see: Buckingham, 2003; Hobbs & Jensen, 2009; Ontario Association for Media Literacy [AML], n.d.). This is the approach of Marshall McLuhan. This scholar took a somewhat different approach to media effects research. Together with Quentin Fiore (1967) he wrote a book entitled The Medium is the Massage. In this book, McLuhan perceives media as powerful but in a different way than other researchers. McLuhan moved away from describing effects of the ‘content’ of media on the receiver to describing effects of the ‘form’ of media on the receiver. For example, he describes how Western society is shaped by the alphabet. With the arrival of the alphabet, people did not need to memorize whole books anymore. This changed the way our memory works, creating forgetfulness in learners. He sees media as an extension of man. McLuhan also had certain ideas about education that have influenced media literacy education. He claims that education must shift from instruction, from the imposing of stencils, to discovery, to probing and exploration and to the recognition of the language of forms (McLuhan & Fiore, 1967).

Variety of Approaches or Consensus?

Since media literacy scholars and practitioners have always come from different backgrounds, it appears logical that there are a wide variety of theoretical underpinnings of media literacy education programs and that a single theoretical framework for media literacy does not exist, as Piette and Giroux (1998) suggest. On the one hand, Piette and Giroux seem to believe that teachers and creators of media literacy programs base their media literacy lessons on their own belief systems and backgrounds, matching it with a related mass communication theory. On the other hand, others argue that media literacy scholars and practitioners are reaching consensus on which theoretical approach is the most appropriate. Several media literacy scholars have described how the prevalence and importance of specific theoretical approaches have declined and grown over time (e.g. Buckingham, 2003; Hobbs, 2005; Masterman, 1985). For example, Hobbs (2005) argues that the S-R model of media effects has been especially marginalized by British, Canadian, American, and Australian media literacy researchers in the 1990s as media literacy has since then been positioned within the cultural/critical studies paradigm. Even though some media literacy scholars agree that the S-R model is outdated (e.g. see Buckingham, 2003; Hobbs, 2005; Masterman, 1985), the view that media are powerful and that children should be protected from their messages has never completely vanished.

Buckingham (2003) argues that media literacy education in the United States is to a certain extent still impacted by fears about the effects of sex and violence in the media and the role of the media in promoting consumerism or materialism. He also argues that this protectionist stance seems to gain importance with the entrance of every new medium or piece of technology. He mentions that this is currently happening with the Internet. Dangers of pornography, pedophiles, and seductions of online marketing are topics that are often discussed in public debate (Buckingham, 2003). As a consequence, certain groups that promote media literacy still act upon this view that media are harmful and that children should be protected from their influence. However, even though media could have possible harmful effects, it is generally agreed that these effects are not as direct as was often assumed (De Boer & Brennecke, 2003). It may therefore be better to teach young people to cope with these media messages instead of condemning their use. This shift is better explained when describing learning theories which have also influenced media literacy education.

Theoretical Underpinnings of Media Literacy: Learning Theory

From the 60s and 70’s, interpretive education scholars such as Lev Vygotsky and Paolo Freire were starting to influence media literacy education (Hobbs & Jensen, 2009). According to Hobbs and Jensen, these scholars conceptualized literacy as a socio-cultural practice that embodies, reflects, and refracts power relations. Freire (2000) for example opposes what he calls the ‘banking system’ of education, in which students are treated like empty vessels in which knowledge is simply deposited. The teacher deposits the knowledge and the students simply receive and store the knowledge as depositories. The student is seen as passive in this ‘banking system’ of education. Freire (2000) therefore calls for a critical pedagogy in which students are assumed to take a more active role. Students should co-construct and transform reality as they become critical thinkers and inquirers.

According to media literacy scholar David Buckingham (2003), the work from Lev Vygotsky has also influenced media literacy education as it offers a social theory of consciousness and of learning (Vygotsky, 1962, 1978). According to Vygotsky, the development of higher mental functions depends on socially and historically dependent signs that mediate social and psychological processes. In this sense, learning is socially and historically defined. Another aspect of Vygotsky’s work that has been regarded useful is a movement beyond the dichotomy of progressive and traditional approaches (Buckingham, 2003). Learning, according to Vygotsky, is not simply about discovery, nor about passive reception of ideas. This relates to a concept described as the zone of proximal development. Vygotsky (1978) defines the zone of proximal development as “the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers” (p. 86). When teaching media literacy, the teacher should therefore not just stand on the side, but work in these ‘zones of proximal development’ and guide or scaffold his or her students.

According to Hobbs and Jensen (2009), media literacy scholars were also influenced by scholars such as Postman and Weingartner (1969). In 1969, Postman and Weingartner wrote about the nature of inquiry learning and how it alters the relationship of the teacher and the student. According to these researchers:

(1) the teacher rarely tells students a personal opinion about a particular social or political issue; (2) does not accept a single statement as an answer to a question (3) encourages student-student interaction as opposed to student-teacher interaction, and generally avoids acting as a mediator or judging the quality of ideas expressed; and (4) lessons develop from the responses of students and not from a previously determined “logical” structure. (Postman & Weingartner, as cited in Hobbs & Jensen, 2009, pp. 3-4)

From Protection to Democratization

Influenced by scholars such as Freire (2000), Postman and Weingartner (1969), and Vygotsky (1962, 1978), Buckingham (1998), and Hobbs and Jensen (2009) argued that the development of media literacy education is part of a wider move towards the democratization of education. The most prominent advocate and promoter of this more democratic approach is Len Masterman (Buckingham, 1998). In 1985, Len Masterman wrote an influential and, at that time, controversial book on media literacy education entitled Teaching the Media. Masterman, who has had a significant influence on media literacy education in Great Britain, Australia, and Europe, was one of the first media educators who wanted to break away from the ‘protectionist’ paradigm that had initially dominated media literacy education. In his view, the general system of education at that time was drastically different from the way media literacy should be taught. He argued that media literacy education will soon be extinguished if the introduction of the topic was not accompanied by major pedagogic transformations. Influenced by previously mentioned authors, Masterman (1985) suggested that the nature of media literacy education lends itself most to a constructivist approach to education. He argued that a few conditions are necessary for media literacy education to thrive, such as “non-hierarchical teaching modes and a methodology which will promote reflection and critical thinking whilst being as lively, democratic, group-focused and action-oriented as the teacher can make it” (p. 27).

After Masterman, there have been quite some scholars calling for this new paradigm of teaching media literacy influenced by both education and communication theorists. Buckingham (2003) also writes about the paradigm shift from using media literacy education for protection purposes to teaching media literacy for preparation purposes. He argues that this change is in line with a broader development related to school curricula. He argues that there has been a move in both media literacy education and education in general towards democratization, which Buckingham (2003) describes as “a process whereby students’ out-of-school cultures are gradually recognized as valid and worthy of consideration in the school curriculum” (p. 9). Over time, it has become more and more accepted to write in school about every-day experiences and about popular culture. No longer are values of a ‘high’ culture imposed on students. Communication theory has over time also increasingly accepted the study of popular culture (Jensen & Rosengren, 1990). According to Buckingham, the notion that media carry a single set of ideologies and beliefs is no longer easy to sustain. The media landscape has come to be seen as more heterogeneous than a few decades ago and research has also shown that audiences are more active than previously assumed (Buckingham, 2003). In educational settings, media literacy education therefore does not assume the student to be a mere recipient of a fixed meaning of a media message. It rather adopts a more student-centered approach to teaching and learning (Buckingham, 2003; Masterman, 1985). Hobbs (2005) argues that British, Canadian, American, and Australian media literacy researchers have positioned media literacy education within the cultural/critical studies paradigm. She claims that, in this paradigm, constructivist theories of teaching and learning play a central role.


According to Jonassen (2006), constructivism is an epistemology that affects the way learning has been conceived the past decade. Jonassen argues that it is not possible to directly demonstrate the effectiveness of constructivism, even though there are various reports that empirically validated innovations based on a constructivist approach. Examples of these are anchored instruction, problem-based learning, microworlds, and cognitive tools (Jonassen, 2006). One of the main differences of constructivism with objectivism (which underlies behaviorism and to a substantial extent, cognitivism) is that it does not assume that the mind can mirror the world (or reality). Instead, it assumes that reality is in the mind of the learner (Duffy & Jonassen, 1992; Jonassen, 1991). The learner interprets the world based on his or her prior beliefs, mental structures, and experiences. Meaning does therefore not simply exist, but “is a function of how the individual creates meaning from his or her experiences” (Jonassen, 1991, p 10). People therefore all perceive the external world differently, based on previous beliefs, mental structures, and experiences. Instructors or designers should therefore help students to construct their own meaning instead of structuring it for them. This means that:

instructional goals and objectives would be negotiated, not imposed … task and content analysis would focus less on identifying and prescribing a single, best sequence for learning … the goal of IST [instructional systems theory] would be less concerned with prescribing mathemagenic instructional strategies necessary to lead learners to specific learning behaviors … evaluation of learning would become less criterion-referenced. (Jonassen, 1991, pp. 11-12)

Evidently, this view on reality alters the way instruction should be designed and assessed. For example, context gains importance in instruction. According to Brown, Collins, and Duguid (1989), learning occurs best in context. They claim that the context in which knowledge is developed and deployed is not separable from learning and that cognition and human actions are dependent on the context in which they occur. This notion is supported by the theory on situated cognition that Brown et al. (1989) researched extensively. Situated learning can be defined as “the notion of learning knowledge and skills in a context that reflects the way the knowledge will be useful in real life” (Collins, 1988, p. 2). By creating meaning in context, learning becomes more realistic and a more meaningful process (Jonassen, 1991).

Intersection Between Communication Theory, Learning Theory, and Media Literacy

Interestingly, in the middle of the 20th century, mass communication theorists appeared to move away from the simplistic S-R model of communication that assumed direct effects of mass media on a passive homogeneous audience (De Boer & Brennecke, 2003). McQuail (2000) argues that the transmission model stems from older institutional contexts and is only appropriate to media activities which are instructional, informational, or propagandist in purpose. He states that even though not everything has changed, new technological possibilities for communication that are not massive or onedirectional are becoming more and more common and he argues that there is some shift away from the earlier massification of society. Generally, the audience has come to be seen as increasingly active and selective in their use and interpretation of mass-media messages (Jensen & Rosengren, 1990) and the emergence of new communication technology have changed traditional assumptions of how people use media (Baran & Davis, 2012). Baran and Davis argue that notions about an active audience that uses media content to create meaningful experiences are at the center of current communication perspectives.

Similarly, an active ‘audience’ or rather, an active ‘learner’, is at the basis of constructivist learning theory. Ertmer and Newby (1993) state that “as one moves along the behaviorist – cognitivist – constructivist continuum, the focus of instruction shifts from teaching to learning, from the passive transfer of facts and routines to the active application of ideas to problems” (p. 66). According to Ertmer and Newby, in constructivism, learners are not only active processors of information, they are also creating and constructing meaning. This is one of the most basic philosophical assumptions underlying constructivism. Constructivists do not necessarily deny the existence of a material world (except radical constructivists), but they argue that it is not the material world which conveys meaning. Rather, it is the language system or any other system that is used to represent this material world. According to Hall (1997) “it is social actors who use the conceptual systems of their culture and the linguistic and other representational systems to construct meaning, to make the world meaningful and to communicate about that world meaningfully to others” (p. 25). According to Jonassen (1991), our world is created by our minds, so no world is more real than another world. Both ‘audiences’ (from a communication perspective) and ‘learners’ (from a constructivist learning perspective) are therefore increasingly seen as active constructors of meaning.

Duffy and Jonassen (1992) argue that there have been two changes in society that caused scholars to return to constructivism. Those two changes are the volume of information in society and the new opportunities provided through technologies. Duffy and Jonassen (1992) state that the information age and technological capabilities have caused us to conceptualize the learning process again and to design new instructional approaches. Information is rapidly changing and more readily available. This makes mastering information in a content domain and storing information less important or even impossible, as there is too much information to store and since information rapidly changes over time (Duffy and Jonassen (1992). Media literacy is a field that particularly plays into this. The changes in information and technologies are often mentioned as the reason or purpose for media literacy education (Buckingham, 2003; Masterman, 1985). Because of these changes, Duffy and Jonassen (1992) argue that the goal of education should not be to master content, but rather to understand and use information to solve a real-world problem. This understanding and use of information also appears as one of the goals of media literacy education. Consequently, the marriage of media literacy, communication theory, and constructivist learning theory seems logical.

In short, it seems that the field has matured over the years and that consensus has been reached about the theoretical underpinnings of media literacy. For example, many scholars currently agree over the new democratic and constructivist paradigm which focuses on preparing students rather than protecting them.

Over the years, media literacy scholars and organizations have itemized their conceptual understandings of the field (Hobbs, 2005). These conceptual understandings are principally grounded in constructivist learning theory and communication theory. They are referred to as the key concepts or principles of media literacy. According to Hobbs (2005) these conceptual understandings are ideas that provide a theoretical framework for teachers who would like to teach media literacy. These media literacy principles or key concepts help to attain consensus on the theoretical underpinnings of the field.

Defining the Field through Conceptual Understandings (Key Concepts):

In 1987, the Ontario Association for Media Literacy (AML), created a first list of key concepts of media literacy, inspired by media literacy scholars from Australia, Great Britain, and Canada itself (Pungente & O’Malley, 1999). They were particularly inspired by Len Masterman (Pungente & O’Malley, 1999). According to AML (n.d.), these key concepts provided a theoretical base for all media literacy programs in Canada. These key concepts have also been applied and adapted by many other media literacy scholars and practitioners. For example, Considine and Haley (1999) described seven key concepts of media literacy. Most of their principles are similar to the ones described by AML. In addition, the Center for Media Literacy (CML, n.d.) has also created a list of what they consider the key concepts of media literacy. CML lists five key concepts. All five of these are concepts that are also mentioned by the AML. Buckingham (2003) did not number his key concepts, but put them in four categories; production, language, representation, and audiences. In each of these categories he describes many of the same principles as did AML. For example, Buckingham (2003) mentions that production involves the recognition that media texts are consciously manufactured (similar to the first principle of AML). He also argues that these media texts are mostly produced and distributed for commercial profit, which is in line with AML’s third principle. The key concepts of media literacy described by AML will therefore be explained next. 

All media are constructions. Media show us different versions of reality. This seems in line with the interpretive philosophy underlying constructivist learning theory that was described earlier. Media are not a lens through which we view the world. Rather, media messages are carefully constructed by media producers. For example, news events that are shown within news broadcasts are always carefully selected, edited, designed, packaged, and presented (Considine & Haley, 1999).

Each person interprets messages differently. This principle rejects the view that audiences are passive and merely manipulated by the media (Considine & Haley, 1999). People often have a different experience when watching the same video program. This principle also appears to be in line with the underlying principles of constructivism. People construct their own meaning which may depend on their own cultural, educational, and historical backgrounds.

The media have commercial interests. Most media are created for profit purposes (AML, n.d.). Media earn money through advertising, which includes product placement and advertisements in social media. This principle does somehow relate to an indirect power that media have. It is not always clear whether certain messages are meant to be informative or persuasive, which relates to cultural studies as it concerns itself with the power dynamics of cultures (Hall, 1997).

The media contain ideological and value messages. In line with the social construction of meaning underlying constructivist approaches, producers of media messages have their own beliefs, opinions, and values. These can influence what story gets told and how it gets told (AML, n.d.). This could influence the way people construct their own meaning. This seems somewhat in line with the Gerbner’s cultivation theory, which was explained earlier. For example, products and messages about weight-loss are often directed at young girls. However, media messages directed at boys often portray male characters as aggressive and violent (Considine & Haley, 2009). This theory recognizes that media messages are not neutral.

Each medium has its own language, style, techniques, codes, conventions, and aesthetics. This principle appears in line with Kozma’s (1991) views on media attributes. He argues that symbol systems (modes of appearance, like words and pictures) represent something else. This is also in line with the classical semiotic approach described earlier. Different media can be described by their capabilities to employ certain symbol systems, techniques, codes, conventions, and aesthetics. For example, a newspaper generally employs different language and aesthetics compared to a teen magazine. Considine and Haley (1999) argue that when students become aware of these languages, they will be able to recognize, read, anticipate, appreciate, and even use these conventions themselves to construct their own meaning.

The media have commercial implications. This principle assumes that media literacy includes an awareness of the economic basis of mass media production (AML, n.d.). Since many networks need to attract advertisers, they may decide to create a program for a specific target audience that would match the marketing goals of the sponsor. This principle is also related to issues of ‘ownership’ and ‘control’. It often exemplifies power relationships among involved parties, which is a dominant concept in semiotic and cultural approaches of mass communication.

The media have social and political implications. This is a very broad principle and relates to many different effects that media may have. This principle, again, assumes some form of ‘power’ of media, which is assumed by many of the mass communication theories described by Piette and Giroux (1998). For example, mass media could play a role in mediating global events and issues such as civil rights and terrorism (AML, n.d.). It also recognizes that media messages can have certain social and political implications. For example, adding certain pictures to a Facebook profile may decrease or increase someone’s chances to get a certain job, for example.

Form and content are closely related in the media. This principle of media literacy appears to relate closely to Marshall McLuhan’s views that have been described earlier. The nature of the medium often determines the type of content that is distributed via that medium. Different media may therefore report the same event, but may create different impressions and messages of the event.

Even though these principles appear related to constructivism and quite often to the cultural studies approach of mass communication, they can be applied in many different ways in education. For example, the fact that media have social and political implications could lead media literacy educators to protect children from media messages while it could also lead them to prepare children to deal with these media messages by deconstructing them. Overall, however, these conceptual understandings provide a theoretical framework for media literacy teachers (Hobbs, 2005).


In this paper, the theoretical underpinnings from communication theory and education were described. Even though a wide variety of theories have influenced media literacy education, it appears that media literacy scholar and practitioners are reaching consensus on which theoretical approach is the most appropriate. Overall, media literacy scholars have described a shift from a protectionist approach to media literacy to a more democratic approach influenced by educational scholars such as Freire (2000), Postman and Weingartner (1969), and Vygotsky (1962, 1978). They also reflect principles of more recent communication theories. This approach is more student-centered and emphasizes non-hierarchical teaching modes, reflection, and critical thinking. In recent communication and constructivist theories it is proposed that meaning is actively constructed by learners. In addition, media literacy scholars and organizations have established key concepts of media literacy which appear especially grounded in a constructivist and cultural studies framework. These conceptual understandings can provide a theoretical basis for the field of media literacy.


 Return to Issue 2 Table of Contents

(You are invited to add to the conversation below.) 


Anderson, J. A. (1980). The theoretical lineage of critical viewing curricula. Journal of Communication, 30(3), 64-70.

Baran, S. J., & Davis, D. K. (2012). Mass communication theory: Foundations, ferment and future. Boston, MA: Wadsworth.

Berel, S., & Irving, L. M. (1998). Media and disturbed eating: an analysis of media influence and implications for prevention. The Journal of Primary Prevention, 18(4), 415-430.

Brown, J. S., Collins, A., & Duguid, P. (1989). Situated cognition and the culture of learning. Educational Researcher, 18(1), 33-42.

Buckingham, D. (1998). Media education in the UK: moving beyond protectionism. Journal of Communication, 48, 33–43. doi: 10.1111/j.1460-2466.1998.tb02735.x

Buckingham, D. (2003). Media education: Literacy, learning and contemporary culture. Cambridge, MA: Polity Press.

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Considine, D., & Haley, G. (1999). Visual messages: Integrating imagery into instruction. (2nd edition). New York, NY: Teacher Ideas Press.

De Boer, C., & Brennecke, S. (2003). Media en publiek: Theorieën over media-impact. Amsterdam, Netherlands: Uitgeverij Boom.

Duffy, T., & Jonassen, D. (1992). Constructivism and the technology of instruction: A conversation. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Ertmer, P. A., & Newby, T. J. (1993). Behaviorism, cognitivism, constructivism: Comparing critical features from an instructional design perspective. Performance Improvement Quarterly, 6(4), 50-70.

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Fox, R. F. (2005). Researching media literacy: Pitfalls and possibilities. In G. Schwartz & P. U. Brown (Eds.), Media literacy: Transforming curriculum and teaching (pp. 251-59). Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Freire, P. (2000). The pedagogy of the oppressed (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Continuum.

Gaines, E. (2010) Media literacy and semiotics. New York, NY: Palgrave MacMillan.

Gerbner, G., Gross, L., Morgan, M., & Signorielli, N. (1994). Growing up with television: The cultivation perspective.  In J. Bryant & D. Zillmann (Eds.), Media effects: Advances in theory and research (pp.17-42). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

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Hobbs, R. (2005). The state of media literacy educa­tion. Journal of Communication, 55(4), 865-871.

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