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Media Literacy and Digital Literacy: how they differ and why they matter

John Grisham

Oct 27th 2021

The term media literacy is used to describe the study of mass communication. In media literacy, we consider the entire spectrum of communications and how they may influence our sense of reality. The content of the media is examined through a lens that reflects its political bias, whether it be deliberate or unconscious. Digital literacy focuses on comprehending how technology affects society and digital media. It covers how digital media is used, why it's important to understand the effects of that media on society. I'll be discussing the differences and similarities of these two forms of literacy and why they are both important to improving our media landscape.

Media literacy and digital literacy are similar in that they both teach individuals how to interact with media. However, there are key differences between the two. Media literacy looks at media as a whole and how it can influence our perceptions of reality. Digital literacy focuses on understanding how digital media tools such as social media platforms, websites, and apps interact with society at large. There is also a difference between the way these two forms of literacy are taught.

Media literacy is usually approached through critical thinking while digital literacy is approached through education with technologies and various digital communication tools. The media is a powerful tool that can be used for good or evil. Media literacy allows us to take control of media rather than being controlled by it, which is why media literacy has become such an important part of the curriculum in schools all over the world.

Digital literacy gives readers another key skill they need to succeed in today's online world by emphasizing 21st-century skills concerning how to consume online news articles. In short, media literacy is the ability to evaluate, analyze, and understand media messages in all forms with a critical eye while digital literacy helps individuals navigate an increasingly online world. Media has always been used as a tool for shaping public opinion; this was true even before internet technology existed. However, the media's influence on society has never been greater than it is today.

If citizens are to succeed in a media landscape fraught with media bias and agenda-heavy media messages then media literacy will be amongst the required literacy skills. In addition, with the advent of social media and increasing patterns of news consumption within these platforms, digital literacy will be a critical complementary form of literacy worth learning.

Differences between digital and media literacy

Interactions between Media Bias and Media Literacy

Media literacy is a useful form of literacy because bias exists on the part of both the content producer and consumer. Media literacy can help us understand media messages on a deep level and this can help mitigate the influence of media bias. However, media literacy cannot prevent or undo media bias no matter how hard it tries. The reason for this is that media messages are created by humans; they are subjective rather than objective which means there will always be some degree of subjectivity present within them - even if minimal. People are biased by nature and media is a reflection of this.

All media is biased

In addition, not all media outlets are created equal. They are not objective 100% of the time, so knowing when to spot inconsistencies in information, writing, and facts all help the reader determine the validity of these sources. Media messages can still contain media biases even if they come from a source known for being less biased- like Axios or Reuters. In other words, media literacy is useful to determine how much objectivity is present in the message itself.

Even if you're consuming news from a reputable source that doesn't mean you won't encounter media bias because these organizations are often run by like-minded individuals who bring their subjectivities with them into every piece of content created which then becomes part of any media message shared through their platform(s).

In a world where media literacy is important to navigate through media bias, we all must become media literate for our society as a whole to create, consume, and share media messages with fewer biases. This means recognizing and understanding the presence of media bias within articles, video clips, audio clips, interviews, etc. It also entails knowing how media bias is created in media messages and how to spot it. We need to know what media literacy is, why media bias occurs within media messages, and how we can reduce the presence of media bias within our content creation/sharing behavior.

Public Perception and Propaganda

This marriage between media bias and public perception is nothing new either. In the past media outlets have been used by authoritarian rulers to establish and spread propaganda. For example, Walter Duranty of the New York Times was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1932 for his coverage of the Soviet Union.

The media bias that surrounded this story is one based on omission and media literacy could help us understand why this message was created (and how it's different from other more objective stories). Duranty did cover certain aspects of life within the USSR: like "industrialization" and "collectivization." However, he omitted any mention of the fact that peasants were being forced off their land or executed if they didn't comply with government orders to join collective farms- which contradicted everything else printed about these issues by multiple NYT journalists at this time.

Duranty even called reports coming out of Russia regarding famine as nothing but unverified rumors while ignoring facts presented to him by British sources. This propaganda campaign may have been masterminded by Stalin but it only worked because of a subset of liberal culture in the U.S. Because so many Soviet sympathizers and ideological communists wanted the idea of a communist utopia to be real their bias prevented them from seeing Duranty's reporting for what it was.

Social Media and Digital Literacy

Of the various forms of media, the most prevalent today is retrieved and shared through online technology. It has become even easier to search Google for information and to easily find content from a site you agree with politically. Another aspect of media literacy today is digital literacy. Media misinformation is oftentimes due to a lack of fact-checking or poor data collection techniques. A potential solution to this is to educate those who interact with digital content and enable them with the skills necessary to discern fact from fiction and fake news from fact-checked reporting.

Digital Echo Chambers

Platforms, such as Facebook or Twitter are often used to share and discuss politically charged news with friends and family members alike, however, this tends to lead to increased bias for those who interact with it daily. The content shared on social media platforms is one-sided due to an "echo chamber" effect in which algorithms suggest content that reaffirms established beliefs.

This media bias is dangerous when it comes to making decisions in elections. For example, viral stories on these platforms were shown to affect the outcome of the 2016 U.S Presidential Election in which media coverage surrounding candidate Hilary Clinton's email scandals, paid speeches and other topics were covered with a negative tone while media coverage for Donald Trump focused primarily on his taxes, sexual assault allegations and lack of experience rather than policy differences between the two.

No one is Immune

As media literacy is increasingly important for proper civic engagement, digital literacy may be a solution to digital media misdirection as well; however, it's difficult to implement considering how widespread online media sharing has become. Digital literacy should focus on education in information literacy and an understanding of how social platform algorithms can cause confirmation bias. There is a conception that young people aren't as affected by online echo chambers present in social media and that older internet users have more need of digital literacy. Articles about the effects of Snapchat and Instagram filter dysphoria show that this may not be the case.

In 2018 several news sources began reporting on millennials who became so accustomed to how they looked when Snapchat filters were applied that it caused extreme dissatisfaction with physical appearance in their absence. The phenomenon is referred to as body dysmorphic disorder and has been observed by some plastic surgeons whose patients requested surgeries reminiscent of these filters.  Although this subject hasn't been fully studied these cases might suggest something profound about the influence of social platforms on our lives. If cases like this prove anything it's that even users who are considered to be more familiar with technology can fall victim to digital manipulation.

The Importance of a Healthy Media Diet

Media literacy is something that many media organizations have taken on as their mission. In the era of "fake news" and media bias, it has never been more important to ensure your media diet isn't filled with junk food from unreliable sources. There are several ways digital literacy can help you learn how to build a healthy media diet for yourself. This involves more than an awareness of when technology is manipulating your perception. Digital literacy also means knowing how to find factual information, identify biases, and filter out the noise. Just like food diets are meant to help keep your body in good shape, digital literacy and media literacy help people keep their minds healthy.

The Media Food Pyramid

What media do you consume? Who is your trusted media source(s)? What are some media sources that you view as biased or unreliable? The media diet of each individual can vary. The important thing to remember for everyone is that the healthiest media diets involve audiences reading and watching a variety of different types of media, including those from partisan and bipartisan organizations. There's also value in experiencing all kinds of media: print, digital, audio, video - so long as they help expand horizons rather than narrow them. Some popular examples include newspapers like the New York Times and Washington Post; cable networks CNN and Fox; radio stations NPR (National Public Radio) or PRI (Public Radio International); websites such as Vox or Buzzfeed; and media outlets based in other countries.

Media Food Pyramid
An edited version of the media pyramid by Faris, view the original here:

Despite these guidelines, there is no universal rule that can be applied to media consumption since there is such a diverse range of media available for audiences to choose from. The reality is we all have different views and opinions about what types of media we trust or find useful, so while some might feel comfortable only consuming digital content with open source licenses (which means readers know exactly how their work has been used), others may not care as long as they enjoy reading the content.

Digital Influences

It can be hard to know sometimes how healthy your media diet is when you're snacking on social media. That's why digital literacy is as important as media literacy. Consuming digital content can be addicting and it can be hard to know when you are being manipulated or swayed by digital sources.

Digital literacy involves knowing how to identify when technology is being used as a tool for propaganda, including the psychological tactics that are often employed through digital media. It also means learning about different kinds of media bias and recognizing patterns in media messages so you can look beyond them to the truth. It also includes understanding all the ways social media influencers use their platforms to affect content creation and consumption through algorithms, ads, sponsored posts, or stories. Other forms of online influence include bots (fake accounts), astroturfing (internet marketing campaigns), and click-bait headlines: these things exist on both sides of the political spectrum and it's important not only to be able to see but question them too.

Learning these skills becomes increasingly important to maintaining a healthy 21st-century digital media diet. Knowing how to recognize the effect of algorithms on content feeds and to research potential influences behind outlets and online messages. Since media outlets and content creators often utilize similar marketing tactics, understanding how to spot these influences can also help audiences become more media literate.

Literacy skills when Creating and Sharing Content Online

Media literacy is not just about the media we consume; it's about what we create as well - which helps build digital literacy too by encouraging the effective use of social media for sharing articles and messages. But participating in media creation is only effective if you know your audience - but maybe instead of only focusing on reaffirming their opinions, we need to think about ways in which we can challenge preexisting beliefs and biases instead of simply pandering to them.

Challenging your Audience is OK

There is a notion that challenging readers with new perspectives will turn those readers away this simply isn't true. While it's true that challenging a person's beliefs can put that person on the defensive it's also possible that it can cause cognitive dissonance or a mental state in which a person has conflicting thoughts or behaviors. This delicate state can either cause someone to either double down and justify their position or as some therapists have noted it can elicit a change in behavior or views.

If anything, media creation should be about fostering a dialogue between people who don't necessarily agree all the time. Unfortunately, the media literacy skills that are important for media producers to have are not always shared by media consumers or vice versa. This disparity in skill sets can affect the quality of content shared online which again highlights the need for digital literacy. It's a vicious cycle and we need to be mindful of what we're sharing with our audience as well as how we're able to effectively engage them on platforms like Facebook.

What this tends to look like is an adherence to objective journalism practices and having a politically diverse writing staff in addition to the literacy skills highlighted here. However, putting your personal bias aside to report objective facts can be difficult when your media organization is funded by ads, paid content/reader subscriptions. Especially the latter because of that assumption that readers will expect a certain type of viewpoint and they might unsubscribe when that viewpoint is challenged.

Digital Citizenship

Digital literacy for media creation is important but it's also about digital citizenship and how we engage with one another online. It boils down to being able to think critically, knowing where you're getting your information from, understanding the difference between fact and opinion, verifying sources before sharing them on platforms like Twitter or Facebook, etc. There are many resources available that teach digital literacy concepts including this digital citizenship curriculum created by Common Sense Education.

In addition, when media creators and consumers focus on these literacy skills more nuanced conversations evolve in public forums which helps spread ideas further than they would have gone otherwise while at the same time building empathy through dialogue instead of simply reaffirming each other's preconceived notions.


Media literacy and digital literacy are different but they both play an important role in today's media climate especially when it comes to the media diet we all need to have for our well-being and to decrease the effects of echo chambers. By recognizing how various outlets use psychological tactics is key for creating and sharing content that challenges preconceived notions while at the same time encouraging empathy through dialogue rather than reaffirming beliefs.

Learning information literacy skills becomes increasingly important when engaging with media online as the distinction between consumption and production narrows. We all have to do our part to practice 21st-century digital media skills when engaging with the internet content we access and create regardless of our age. In addition to this digital responsibility, practicing general media literacy will also be key.

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