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8: Critical Media Literacy and Civic Learning

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    Developed as a companion edition to Building Democracy for All (2020), Critical Media Literacy and Civic Learning (2021) features more than 100 interactive media literacy learning activities for students organized around key topics in civics, government, and history education derived from the Massachusetts 8th Grade Civics and Government curriculum framework (see tables below). Civics concepts for which we have developed critical media literacy activities include democracy as a political system, a republic as a form of government, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the branches of U.S. government, elections and voting, political parties, citizenship, political leadership and courage, political protest, civil rights and social justice, political action committees, amendments to the Constitution, landmark Supreme Court decisions, functions of state and local government, freedom of the press, digital news and social media, and many more.

    Each critical media literacy learning activity includes short written introductions followed by step-by-step directions for students to complete the activities, individually or in small groups. Every activity is designed to promote creative self-expression and higher-order critical thinking among students about the ways that online and print media impact our lives as well as our nation's politics.

    Media Literacy Activities for Key Civics, Government, and History Concepts

    1. Foundations of the United States Political System
      Key Civics, Government, and History Concepts Critical Media Literacy Activities
      Democracy as a Political System Democracy in Social Media Policies and Community Standards
      A Republic as a Form of Government The Internet as a Public Utility
      Impacts of Enlightenment Philosophies 21st Century Women STEM Innovators
      British Influences on American Government Media Coverage of the Royals
      Native American Influences on American Government Representations of Native Americans in Film, Local History Publications, and School Mascots
    2. The Development of United States Governments
      Key Civics, Government, and History Concepts Critical Media Literacy Activities
      Declaration of Independence Declarations of Independence on Social Media
      Articles of Confederation Marketing and Regulating Self-Driving Cars
      The Constitutional Convention Representations of and Racism Towards Black Americans in the Media
      Federalists and Anti-Federalists Political Debates Through Songs from Hamilton: An American Musical
      The Constitution and the Bill of Rights Bill of Rights on Twitter
    3. Institutions of United States Government
      Key Civics, Government, and History Concepts Critical Media Literacy Activities
      Branches of the Government and the Separation of Powers Hollywood Movies About the Branches of Government
      Checks and Balances between the Branches Writing an Impeachment Press Release
      The President, the Congress, and the Courts Use of Social Media by Members of Congress
      Elections Political Impacts of Public Opinion Polls
      Political Parties Website Design for New Political Parties
    4. The Rights and Responsibilities of Citizens
      Key Civics, Government, and History Concepts Critical Media Literacy Activities
      Citizenship and Becoming a U.S. Citizen Immigration in the News
      Rights and Responsibilities of Citizens and Non-Citizens Portrayals of Immigrants in TV and Films
      Civic, Political, and Private Life

      COVID-19 Information Evaluation

      Women Political Leaders in the Media

      Fundamental Principles and Values of American Democracy Online Messaging by Advocacy Organizations and Special Interest Groups
      Voting and Citizen Participation Digital Games for Civic Engagement
      Accurate Information for Voters

      Social Media in Elections

      Media Spin in the Coverage of Political Debates

      Political Leadership Celebrities' Influence on Politics
      Connections between People and Their Elected Representatives Political Activism Through Social Media
      Careers in Public Service

      Media Recruitment of Public Sector Workers

      Images of Teachers and Teaching

      Individual Liberty and Social Equality Representing Trans Identities
      Political Courage and Anti-Democratic Actions Media Framing the Events of January 6, 2021
      Political Protest Music as Protest Art
      Interest Groups, Political Action Committees, and Labor Unions PACs, SuperPACs, and Unions in the Media
    5. The Constitution, Amendments, and Supreme Court Decisions
      Key Civics, Government, and History Concepts Critical Media Literacy Activities
      The Necessary and Proper Clause  
      Amendments to the Constitution

      Prohibition in the Media

      The Equal Rights Amendment on Twitter and Other Social Media

      The Civil War, Federal Power, and Individual Rights

      Civil War News Stories and Recruitment Advertisements

      Representations of Gender and Race on Currency

      Equal Rights and Protections for Race, Gender, and Disability The Equality Act on Twitter
      Marbury v. Madison Reading Supreme Court Dissents Aloud
      Landmark Supreme Court Decisions Television Cameras in Courtrooms
    6. The Structure of State and Local Government
      Key Civics, Government, and History Concepts Critical Media Literacy Activities
      Functions of State and National Government Native American Mascots and Logos
      Distribution of Powers A Constitution for the Internet
      Enumerated and Implied Powers Military Recruitment and the Media
      Protection of Individual Rights Your Privacy on Social Media
      The 10th Amendment Pandemic Information Policies in the Media
      The Massachusetts State Constitution Gendered Language in Media Coverage of Women in Politics
      Responsibilities of Federal, State, and Local Government

      Environmental Campaigns Using Social Media

      Trusted Messengers, the Media, and the Pandemic

      Leadership of Massachusetts State Government Online Campaigning for Political Office
      Tax-Supported Facilities and Services Advertising the Lottery
      The Functions of Local Government Local Government and Social Media
    7. Freedom of the Press and News/Media Literacy
      Key Civics, Government, and History Concepts Critical Media Literacy Activities
      Freedom of the Press 8.7.1: Press Freedom in the United States and the World
      Competing Information

      Objectivity and the News from All Sides

      Investigative Journalism and Social Change

      Formats for News Writing

      News Photographs and Newspaper Design

      How Reporters Report Events

      Digital News and Social Media

      Recommendation Algorithms on Social Media Platforms

      Fake News Investigation and Evaluation

      Evaluating Print and Online Media Critical Visual Analysis of Online and Print Media
      Editorials, Editorial Cartoons, and Op-Ed Commentaries Memes and TikToks as Political Cartoons
    Defining Critical Media Literacy, by Allison Butler

    "Media literacy" is defined in a variety of ways. Most commonly it is used as an "umbrella term" that encompasses the analysis of mass-media and pop-culture, digital or technology platform analysis, and civic engagement and social justice action.

    Sometimes the terms "media literacy" and "media education" are used interchangeably. The leading global scholar in children's media cultures, David Buckingham, sees them as two separate actions that are related to each other. He defines:

    • Media literacy as "the knowledge, skills and competencies that are required in order to use and interpret media" (2003, p.36).
    • Media education as "the process of teaching and learning about the media" and media literacy as "the outcome – the knowledge and skills learners acquire" (2003, p.4).

    Graphic of words relating to media, including "Internet," "radio," "data," "content," "money," and names of various social media platforms, written in black letters on a white background.

    Image on Pixabay, free to use.

    Interpretation, or evaluation, is a key component of any media literacy work. Sonia Livingstone, of the London School of Economics, notes that "Evaluation is crucial to literacy: imagine the world wide web user who cannot distinguish dated, biased, or exploitative sources, unable to select intelligently when overwhelmed by an abundance of information and services" (2004, p. 5). In media literacy work, interpretation, or evaluation, is the process by which students and teachers dig through their already-existing knowledge in order to share information with each other and build new knowledge.

    In the United States, media literacy is defined as "hands-on and experiential, democratic (the teacher is researcher and facilitator) and process-driven. Stressing as it does critical thinking, it is inquiry-based. Touching as it does on the welter of issues and experiences of daily life, it is interdisciplinary and cross-curricular" (Aufderheide, 1993, p. 2). The student of media literacy learns how to access, analyze, and produce a variety of media texts (Aufderheide, 1993).

    What is Critical Media Literacy?

    In this eBook, we have chosen to add the qualifier "critical" to our use of the term "media literacy." Critical media literacy encourages analysis of the dominant ideology and an interrogation of the means of production. It is rooted in social justice (Kellner & Share, 2007) and explores the "behind the scenes" of ownership, production, and distribution. Critical media literacy is an inquiry into power, especially the power of the media industries and how they determine the stories and messages to which we are the audience.

    Sometimes in media literacy work, the question is more important than the answer. The question is an invitation for students and teachers to work together, to share knowledge, and to build collaborative understandings. Because so much of media analysis is about interpretation, there may not be one absolute answer. In many of the lessons, you will see discussion questions posed without corresponding answers or information; please use this as an opportunity to generate shared knowledge with students and, if further questions arise, to check for additional resources.

    There are (at least!) Three Ways to Apply the Term "Critical"

    Critical analysis: Approach a text from a distance and eliminate the emotional response, while exploring why there is an emotional response. Critical analysis is a clinical approach (asking questions). As part of the interpretation/evaluation process, it involves self-reflection: What do I know/believe and how do I know it/why do I believe it?

    Media literacy is critical: Six corporations control 90% of all mainstream media in America (Lutz, 2012; Phillips, 2018). Teens report spending more than 7 hours a day on screen-based entertainment media outside of school time (Kaiser Family Foundation, 2010; Rideout & Robb, 2019). More than 90% of U.S. teenagers' self-report smartphone ownership/access (Anderson & Jiang 2018). Based on quantity of time alone, young people deserve to have formal study of the media in order to better understand what they are spending so much time on.

    Critical media literacy: It is a process of continuous critical inquiry, diving deeply into questions of ownership, production, and distribution: What is known about the text? How is this known? What is the context for understanding the text?

    Concepts of Media Literacy

    In 2003, and updated in 2007, David Buckingham codified the concepts of media literacy. The concepts are flexible and can be adapted to multiple media. The following are the basic outlines of each concept:

    • Production: Media texts are consciously manufactured. Addressing production asks questions about how the media are constructed and for what purpose. It is important to explore the "invisible" commercialization of digital media and global role of advertising, promotion, and sponsorship.
    • Language: Visual and spoken languages communicate meaning; familiar codes and conventions make meaning clear. Digital literacy also looks at digital rhetoric, especially website design and links.
    • Representation: Events are made into stories which invite audiences to see the world in one way and not in others. This concept explores authority, reliability, and bias and looks at whose stories are told and whose are ignored.
    • Audience: Who is engaging with what texts and how are people targeted? This concept looks at how users access sites, how they are guided through sites, and the role of users’ data gathering (2003, pp.53-67; 2007, pp.155-156).

    Apply the Concepts/Engaging Media Literacy: News and Information Evaluation

    Critical Media Literacy Guides

    A key component to critical media literacy is critical inquiry. Much of the work of critical media literacy is to ask questions of the media texts that we make use of and study. Critical media literacy focuses on both the content of the media (that is, what we watch, read, or listen to) and, possibly more importantly, on the power behind the construction of the content (that is, the ownership, production, and distribution of media texts). Critical media literacy pays close attention to the interrogation of power: What media are the object of our study and how did they come to be?

    Our Critical Media Literacy Guides provides some foundational questions for a variety of media, including social media, websites, news and newspapers, movies, television, images, and advertisements. The questions focus both on the forward-facing content as well as the behind-the-scenes of each medium. The questions address both representation of the power of construction and of distribution. The questions are intentionally broad - they will best be used to begin the process of analysis. The questions are designed with popular culture texts in mind and can be used with historic and contemporary media, and for a variety of local, national, independent, and corporate media. The questions are not focused on a particular text or content, so they are adaptable and can be used as a guide for multiple media, over time.


    • Anderson, M. and Jiang, J. (May 31, 2018). Teens, social media and technology 2018. Pew Research Center. Avail:
    • Aufderheide, P (1993). Media literacy: A report of the national leadership conference on media literacy. Queenstown, MD: The Aspen Institute.
    • Buckingham, D. (2003). Media education: Literacy, learning and contemporary culture. London: Polity Press.
    • Kaiser Family Foundation (January 20, 2010). Daily media use among children and teens up dramatically from five years ago. Avail:
    • Kellner, D. and Share, J. (2007). Critical media literacy, democracy, and the reconstruction of education. In Macedo, D. and Steinberg, S. (Eds.), Media literacy: A reader, pp.3-23. New York, NY: Peter Lang.
    • Phillips, P. (2018). Giants: The global power elite. New York, NY: Seven Stories Press.
    • Rideout, V., and Robb, M. B. (2019). The Common Sense census: Media use by tweens and teens, 2019. San Francisco, CA: Common Sense Media.

    Additional Resources

    Popular press coverage on social media & fighting fake news:

    Scholarly works that introduce and apply media literacy:

    • Buckingham, D. (2003). Media education: Literacy, learning and contemporary culture. London, England: Polity Press.
    • Buckingham, D. (2007). Beyond technology: Children’s Learning in the age of digital culture. London, England: Polity Press.
    • Buckingham, D. (2019). The media education manifesto. London, England: Polity Press.

    Scholarly work with news analysis component:

    • Higdon, N. (2020). The anatomy of fake news: A critical news literacy education. Oakland, CA: University of California Press.

    Young adult work on how to make sense of fake news:

    • Otis, C.L. (2020). True or false: A C.I.A. analyst's guide to spotting fake news. New York, NY: Feiwel and Friends.

    8: Critical Media Literacy and Civic Learning is shared under a not declared license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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