Critical Media and Information Literacy

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Critical thinking is a key component of Media and Information Literacy (MIL). One could say that MIL can be achieved through training critical thinking skills, alongside wanting to engage with media and being empowered enough to do so. But what is Critical MIL? Does applying ‘critique’ mean taking a negative standpoint?’

Imagine you receive a massive, anonymous gift package of candy, flowers, wine, luxury items and other goodies you really, really like. A stream of questions immediately comes up. Who sent it? Why?

Well, yes and no. Critical thinking has much to do with asking insightful questions and keeping an inquisitive mind. For example, imagine you receive a massive, anonymous gift package of candy, flowers, wine, luxury items and other goodies you really, really like. A stream of questions immediately comes up. Who sent it? Why? When? Can the above be established by knowing who or when delivered it? Did your neighbours see anyone deliver it? What do the contents of the package suggest – who knew this was your wildest dream? What could be the purpose of sending such a package? Is there someone who would benefit from your reaction to receiving said package? Who could that be? Would they have the knowledge and resources to send a package like that? Were they in town at the time the package was posted? Does it all add up?!


Be a detective – ask the right questions!

In the context of being a critical media consumer, the critical questions would most likely be about the motives of the author. How was the information verified? Who might benefit from disseminating such information? That can also mean being perceived as a negative person, especially in situations where not taking anything at face value might upset your conversation partner, for example. Critical thinkers would rather debate through dialogue than agree with a predefined position. On the other hand, the idea of giving critique is not about being negative, but more about honest reactions. 

To understand the intersection of critical thinking and MIL, try and think of yourself as a detective even in the most mundane daily situations.

A similar approach helps with MIL too. Firstly, one must have the background knowledge on media logic and the risks and opportunities of the modern information environment. Secondly, asking the right questions in order to analyse a topic or theme from different angles may well make all the difference in forming an opinion. Professional journalists develop those skills at work through processing previously gathered and analysed information into articles for the general public. They use critical thinking, comparison of different sources’ accounts and strategic interviewing plans aimed at extracting as much information as possible. Here are some different ways to ask questions, which can help you analyse a situation or topic in your personal or professional life, from

  • Open-ended Questions

    The first trick of journalistic interviewing is to avoid questions that allow a simple “yes” or “no” answer where and when possible. This allows for the person you are conversing with to decide for themselves what other information is needed to understand the context. Therefore, your conversation partner will provide more information that they find relevant and that might be necessary to understanding the big picture.

  • Outcome-based Questions

    This is a great way to gain perspective into what someone else would do in your shoes. Describing a situation, hypothetical or not, and then asking someone, “What would you do?” is a great way to see how their own thinking patterns work, but will also give you access to another person’s knowledge and experience. Most likely, you will gain information you had not thought of yourself.

  • Reflective Questions

    Reflective questions help gain insight into another person’s experience and thought processes, which can, in turn, help develop your own critical thinking skills; for example, asking someone what they thought about a topic before going to a course. How did they feel during the learning process? What did they learn that they did not know before? What learning strategies were the most useful? Which strategies will they try again? Hearing someone else’s lived experience will help make a more informed decision on how to move forward. It will also reveal a lot about the person you are conversing with.

  • Structural Questions

    How does a system work? How are the parts connected? How efficient is it? These questions help understand the system or ‘modus operandi’ of your subject, which in turn helps you become more efficient. Any working system usually results from trial and error, which can always be learnt from. These also include questions with yes/no answers sometimes – when trying to confirm or debunk a piece of information, for example.

    So, as you can see, asking the right questions is a big step towards gaining the information necessary in order to really think critically. If you’re an educator, there is no better way of teaching different types of questions than trying to identify different manoeuvres in interviews. Extra points are awarded for any students who spot missed opportunities by the interviewer to dig in deeper! 

    Did we spark your interest? Our own Aleksandra Mangus has written a great article on what critical thinking is, how it came about and how to apply it to teaching MIL.


Photo of Maia Klaassen
Maia Klaassen

Maia works as a Development Specialist at the University of Tartu and the main focus of her job, as well as her research, is in the field of information disorders. As research suggests, it is not possible to fight against the destabilising effects of the phenomena without involving media and information literacy. Taking this into account, Maia balances her research with Media and Information Literacy (MIL) projects, both as a project lead and a youth trainer. Her main focus for the coming years will be to find and highlight best-practice MIL training that could be taken from the formal and informal education system, which tend to cater to the young, but also to the whole population. She is currently coordinating the Baltic MIL network, in order to create a multinational hub to fight disinformation. She also heads the Estonian Digital Research Centre, which looks after the interactive information manipulation risk matrix at

Picture of Maria Murumaa-Mengel
Maria Murumaa-Mengel, PhD

Maria Murumaa-Mengel (PhD in Media and Communication) is currently working as an Associate Professor of Media Studies at the Institute of Social Studies, University of Tartu, and as a member of the Baltic Engagement Centre for Combating Information Disorders. She is involved in research primarily focusing on young people’s use (and non-use, ‘going off the grid’) of social media, different literacies (e.g. digital, MIL, social media, porn), and various online risks (e.g. gendered online hate, online shaming, online child sexual abuse and grooming). Maria Murumaa-Mengel’s main strengths lie in teaching and supervising – she is the recipient of the 2020 Estonian National Award for the Teacher of the Year and has supervised several award-winning theses. In regard to digital media literacies, she is a firm believer in the ‘know thyself’ ground rule – it all starts with knowing how we as people process information in the increasingly mediatised and datafied world.