Is media literacy passive or active?

The ability to read and write, i.e. literacy, was once considered a trade secret by the professional scribes who depended on it for job security. The ability to read and write is still the most commonly understood notion of literacy, but technological developments require that the definition of literacy be expanded and modified. While a modern set of professional scribes ensure their job security by guarding trade secrets, a generation of people raised on electronic and visual media could benefit from more than a passive understanding of media. If literacy is composed of the “passive” ability to read and the “active” ability to write, then any definition of “literacy,” including media literacy, would be comprised of active and passive components. Yet, definitions of media literacy are generally limited to the development of passive skills. It would be akin to saying that "literacy" equals only reading comprehension. But why would people write if no one could read? In order to examine the relationship between literacy and media literacy and how each is understood, I have divided the discussion below into four parts. First, I examine definitions of literacy. Next, I compare definitions of literacy to definitions of media literacy. Third, I share the results of a study in which participants self-report on their understanding of “literacy” and “media literacy.” Finally, I discuss some implications of the survey results that point to the need for further research in order to examine the differences in how literacy and media literacy are understood.

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