The Link between Health & Media Literacy

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The significant increase in mass mediated messages about health over the past two decades has generated an increased sense of urgency for media literacy—not just among healthcare patients but also among the general population. Ultimately, conceptualizing health literacy as merely an extension of print literacy does not fully address the socio-economic and political contexts that shape health. These and other concerns about the link between limited print literacy and low health literacy compel educators and policymakers to find ways to draw on newer forms of literacy, including digital literacies that involve blogging, texting, remixing, and other transmedia platforms.

According to the National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE), media literacy consists of “the habits of inquiry and skills of expression that individuals need to be critical thinkers, effective communicators and active citizens in today’s world.” Just as health is not solely determined by how much food a person consumes, media literacy is not solely determined by how many media messages a person can critically evaluate. While the ability to critically analyze media texts (i.e., to identify the motives of junk food advertisers, deconstruct a pharmaceutical advertisement, etc.) is imperative, media literacy requires the active creating and sharing of information.

The challenge is to bridge the gap between knowledge and action or behavior. The connector is reflection—obtaining a personal understanding of the importance of critical analysis (of media messages, forms, and technologies) and what it reveals. The following five questions can serve as a starting point for reflective discussion with teenagers:

  • How do teens interpret health messages?

All media supply youth with powerful symbolic materials from which to negotiate meaning and to establish an identity in the context of the world around them. Meaning does not reside in the text itself, but is a product of the interaction between text and audience/user. There are mixed messages about where the power or agency resides.

  • How is “health” constructed through mass media?

While teens make meaning and construct their own reality, there are also powerful institutional forces at play that shape thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors. Media are neither reality nor windows to the world. Instead, they are carefully constructed products that represent a particular view of actual people, places, events, and ideas. 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 an interpretation of reality.

  • How are media languages used to construct health?

Each media form has its own specific language or set of codes and conventions, such as editing, hyperlinking, sequencing, timing, or framing as examples. These media techniques impact the message conveyed. Often the audience/user is oblivious to the impact of the technological form. For example, a teen diagnosed as obese might be able to decode the persuasive techniques of a junk food commercial on TV. Yet, (s)he may be unaware that the sedentary act of TV viewing may also contribute to obesity.

  • What values are associated with health through and across media?

The languages of newspapers, magazines, television, and the Internet use shortcuts to meaning, also known as stereotyping, which may oppress certain groups of people. Questions to ask of each media message are: “Whose story is told?” “Whose story is left out?” At the same time, the health information that news media circulate through various channels may convey a set of values not shared by the audience in desperate need of the information. The is a major challenge among scientists and journalist who don’t necessarily agree on what health information is “newsworthy.”

  • Who owns the media constructions of health?

It is no surprise that media messages can never be neutral since they are owned, produced, distributed, and/or used by individuals or groups with a bias, point of view, political agenda, and/or economic motive. These individuals or institutions have historical and social contexts that may be concealed from the general public. For example, more than half of all food sales in the United States are controlled by the ten largest food companies.

A core principle of media literacy is that individuals of all ages can creatively produce media messages, in addition to critically evaluating them. By being media producers and distributors, young people in particular can offer their interpretation of reality as agents of positive social change for healthy behavior. These ideas are the focus of the book, Healthy Teens, Healthy Schools (Rowman & Littlefield). You can pre-order the book that arrives both digitally and in print in May 2015. Click here to read the Introduction.

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