Visual competence and media literacy: can one exist without the other?

In the last 20 years the notion that images overpower words, and the belief that a decreasing lexical literacy among the young has been offset by an increasing visual literacy, has been repeated often enough to become accepted wisdom. Yet the precise nature of visual literacy among the young and the relationship between visual competencies and the notion of media literacy have not been fully explored or adequately specified. Concepts of visual literacy and media literacy are unproductively conflated, and visual competencies are too often assumed on the part of those that exhibit familiarity with media culture. This essay compares and analyses notions of visual competence and media literacy and argues that: (1) a cultivated awareness of the production of visual forms and characteristics, and their implications, is necessary for what has been described in the literature as 'media literacy'; and (2) the acquisition of visual analysis skills pre-requires a broader operational context of media literacy. Through an examination of images from religious painting to news coverage the article argues that visual competencies and media literacy skills may, indeed, be mutually dependent.