Information Literacy v. Media Literacy: What’s In A Name?

“Well, Actually…”

I used to be quite the pedant. I would take misstatements as opportunities to teach. Then I realized what a jerk move that is. Now I let people say what they want to say how they want to say it, unless there’s a need for greater precision or clarity. 

I make an honest attempt to stay away from my pedantic origins. But there’s an important distinction that needs addressing. It’s something each of us should note, and push back against. 

In January of 2023, New Jersey became the first state in the nation to pass legislation requiring all public schools to provide information literacy education for students. It was a great moment for NJASL – there are members who have been working to move this legislation forward for years. 

And yet. 

Success! …Kind of

Multiple news outlets reported the legislation as a “media literacy” bill. This, in turn, led to a rash of posts and pushback stating that the legislation – and the education it would foster – would have school librarians and other educators dictating to students what news sources they were allowed to use. Many of these statements framed the new student learning standards as a partisan attempt to control what information students saw online. 

This misnaming, miscommunication, and misunderstanding has continued. In fact, a recent headline and accompanying article once again (incorrectly) referred to the “media literacy” legislation. 

Headline from a May 14, 2024 article in NJ Spotlight News that reads, “No curriculum yet for media literacy education in NJ”; subheading: “A year-old law mandates education in media literacy for k-12 students”

Headline from a May 14, 2024 article in NJ Spotlight News that reads, “No curriculum yet for media literacy education in NJ”; subheading: “A year-old law mandates education in media literacy for k-12 students”


“Only Specialists In The Field” 

This led to some consternation within NJASL. An air of anger permitted a discussion, with folks wondering why news outlets seemed to willfully refuse to use the correct term. One member stated: 

“I had a long exchange with a reporter once about the terms media and information literacy and he said that to people outside of librarianship and education the terms are so nuanced that they don’t see the difference. ‘Only specialists in the field distinguish it’ so they gave up and kind of use it interchangeably.”

This is a problem. 

A Cat By Any Other Name…

As Juliet famously said, “What’s in a name? A rose by any other word would smell as sweet.” (Romeo & Juliet, 2.2.46-47) Her point is a good one – what we call something doesn’t change its function. I can call a hammer a cat, and still drive nails with it. 

However, names DO matter when communicating. If I tell someone to bring the cat, and they bring me a feline when I want a hammer, that’s a problem – both for the project and for the cat. Similarly, the names of subjects and programs matter in education. And they particularly matter when those subject names are repeatedly referred to in the media by the wrong name. 

Headbangers Ball

Imagine if your local newspaper repeatedly referred to the Heavy Metal class requirement at your school. There would be some raised eyebrows, probably some angry emails, and at least a few students getting pulled out of class. If the local press said that “only specialists in the field” distinguish between the term “music” and the term “heavy metal”, they’d be laughed out of the room. 

The difference between information literacy and media literacy is not obscure or subtle. Information literacy, like the term “music”, refers to a large field of knowledge and practices. Media literacy, like the term “heavy metal”, is a subset of that larger category. The lesser might be included in lessons on the greater, but the lesser is not the sole focus of study. Using the terms interchangeably is blatantly, factually incorrect.

You Gotta Keep ‘Em Separated

I don’t highlight this difference to be pedantic. These terms have specific, different meanings. In addition, the term “media literacy” carries the image of news source indoctrination. This is not correct, but we must acknowledge that some factions have redefined the term for their followers, poisoning the well. 

Conflating information literacy and media literacy, therefore, sets up multiple issues. In the immortal words of the great philosophers The Offspring in their seminal song “Come Out and Play”, “You gotta keep ‘em separated.” 

What’s in a name? Many things: Expectations, biases, misunderstandings, political beliefs. Misnaming something puts it in the wrong mental sorting bin. But if we push back on the misnomers, we help ensure that a name carries with it some element of truth.


Author: Steve Tetreault

After 24 years as a classroom English Language Arts teacher, Steve became a school librarian in January 2022. He has earned an M.Ed. (2006) and an Ed.D. (2014) in Educational Administration and Supervision, and completed an M.I. degree in Library and Information Science (2019). He is certified as a teacher, school library media specialist, supervisor, and administrator. He is an old dog constantly learning new tricks!

Categories: Advocacy/Leadership, Literacy

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1 reply

  1. I’ve been calling it “information and media literacy.” But if NJASL prefers, I’ll keep it to information literacy. Thanks!

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