Information literacy is an area of pedagogy and study most closely associated with library and information science. It is used prolifically in libraries and refers to the ability to read, decipher, evaluate, and use information in everyday life (Kulthau 1987). Information literacy is not the same as traditional reading-based literacy; rather, it refers to a frame of reference for consuming information and is a type of critical thinking. Information literacy considers the local context in which information is found and consumed (i.e. the who, what, where, when, and why of the source), and it seeks information that is relevant to a task and has long-term potential to be useful. Information literacy is widely taught in libraries with the goal of enabling students and patrons to locate and utilise quality information.
Critical information literacy
More recent literature and information literacy practices focus on critical information literacy (Accardi et al. 2010; Bawden, 2008; Bawden & Robinson, 2002; Elmborg 2006; Tisdell 2008), which extends information literacy by setting forth the expectation that in addition to looking at information in situ, people should recognise and understand the underlying power structures that shape information and media and subsequently grant agency to those acquiring quality information (or deny agency to those lacking quality information or to those who are unable to acquire any needed information). As the old adage goes, information is power, and this is played out in the proverbial ‘haves and have nots’and in the digital divide. The digital divide was again put under a harsh spotlight during the COVID-19 crisis when students of all ages were sent home to learn online. It is a privilege to have the time, infrastructure, hardware, software, and funds to learn online, and not everyone has such privilege.
Critical information literacy is useful when understanding that cultural messages in particular are prone to misinformation, disinformation, and malinformation because it suggests examining information and media in context and outside the vacuums in which they are often found (Cooke 2018b). However, it does not go far enough in terms of explaining why cultural messages in particular are prone to misinformation, disinformation, and malinformation. The why requires recentring people and information from other cultures and intentionally examining media and information through a populist lens (please see the final section on critical cultural literacy).
Scholar Belinha De Abreu defines media literacy as follows:
Media literacy is defined as the ability to access, understand, analyze, evaluate, and create media in a variety of forms. But what are ‘media’? In the broadest sense, media are the tools and systems that are used to store and deliver information and data to large numbers of people. Media are thus the pathways of communication that are used to reach, inform, entertain, or influence people on a wide scale. That media include television and radio, newspapers and magazines, advertising, movies and videos, book publishing and photography, as well as various networks, platforms, outlets, and forums on the Internet. To put it briefly, the media are vehicles for mass communication.
(De Abreu 2019, p. 3)
De Abreu goes on to detail the further distinctions and complexities contained within the umbrella term ‘media’. Because media and information are indeed nuanced, she goes on to say:
Media literacy involves critical thinking. To think that it does not would make the study of media literacy a passive undertaking, rather than an engaged dynamic. In truth, much of the media is consumed without a critical lens. The idea of media literacy is that we are actively involved in how we perceive, discuss, or consider the media we consume and the media we use in our lives.
(De Abreu 2019, p. 3)
Key to De Abreu’s definition are the ideas that media (and information) should be engaged with actively and through a critical lens. This is where current information and media literacies often fall short.
Because so much media and information are sought and consumed online, digital, media, and visual literacy skills are also important to consider and incorporate. These related concepts of digital, media, and visual literacies are essentially about being ‘deeply literate in the digital world’ and being ‘skilled at deciphering complex images and sounds as well as the syntactical subtleties of words’ (Lanham 1995, p. 198). Glister (1997) describes digital literacy as a mastery of ideas and not the mastery of keystrokes. Media literacy narrows the focus a bit by focusing on mass media such as television and radio, and it can also encompass video games and print products such as comic books and graphic novels. Visual literacy (also known as graphic literacy) is not limited only to electronically accessed images; it asks information and media consumers to decipher visual imagery and the intentional and unintentional messages contained within. This trio of literacies complement media and information literacies, and they are particularly important to understanding misinformation, disinformation, and malinformation that are transmitted through memes, videos, infographics, and other forms of non-print information.