Junk-Food News Turning Us into Fat-Heads

[Source: Miami Herald, by Eric Newton, August 13, 2011]

We the people are fat. So much so medical experts have declared an epidemic and declared costs to this nation of untold billions. But there’s an even bigger epidemic out there, less obvious but no less dangerous.

Just as we consume comfort food, our high-calorie midnight ice creams, we are, more and more, consuming “comfort news.”
Let me explain. You are on the Internet, or hearing talk radio, or seeing cable TV. You say, "HEY, I agree with that guy!" And you feel good.
But how much protein — and how much fact — is involved? Are you getting news, or opinion pretending to be news?
Comfort news is the brain candy of the news stream. Like comfort food, it brings a temporary pleasure, but if we consume nothing but it, society pays a price.
Comfort news is the reason so many Americans believe most scientists dispute global warming (most scientists don’t) or that commercial newspapers by definition can’t produce good journalism (also false). Comfort news is why we know so much about what celebrities do and so little about what our government does or how to solve our problems.
This trend is the underbelly of the information revolution, the dark side of the digital age. Like modern agriculture, modern news technology is giving us an amazing variety of choice. Used badly, however, these new tools amplify our worst tendencies.
It would help to understand that there are sweeping similarities between food and news. What food is for the body, news is for the mind. We need food every day to live. We need news and information every day to function.
Both the food and news systems are shaped by markets, technology, personal choice and public policy.
A few similarities:
  • Just a few really big companies produce a huge amount of our food; a handful of corporations employ many of those who produce much of our news.
  • The refrigerator changed the food business. Gone is the fresh milk on the doorstep. Similarly, the computer is changing the news business. And some newspapers have gone away.
  • Some people prefer to grow their own food; some prefer to blog their own news. There’s a crusade against national fast-food chains and also one against fast-food news; a campaign in favor of organic, homegrown food, and also in favor of locally produced, unprocessed news.
Technology is driving rapid change. The Pew Internet and American Life project says that news and information in America today are rapidly becoming more "portable, personal and participatory." All of the amazing smartphones, tablets and apps let us filter the world so that we can understand and interact with it.
Some scholars saw it coming. Ralph Lowenstein, dean emeritus of the University of Florida school of journalism and communication, warned 40 years ago that things might not turn out well. Interactive electronic news, he wrote, could lead people to build "a political, social or educational cocoon" around themselves. And to the extent that this happens, "society will suffer, since it is likely to be divided into highly polarized and probably unempathetic people."
Polarized? Unempathetic? Welcome to America 2011. We have healthy food but we choose to eat the other and get fat. And we have good journalism based on FACT — the Fair, Accurate, Contextual search for Truth — but we consume too much of the other kind, the spin, the opinion, the empty calories. We’re becoming Comfort News Central, a Fat Head Nation, where — this is a fact — attack ads outnumber all other forms of televised political advertising.
Eli Pariser’s new best-seller The Filter Bubble documents our return to our own little entrenched worlds. Every day, media and technology companies are finding new ways to help us block out everything we don’t want. Search engines now look at our clicks and serve up what we like. In this era of information overload, 70 percent of us say we are overwhelmed. So we filter.
But then we complain — as did half the people in Chicago during a recent poll by the Chicago Community Trust — that we just don’t know enough to vote. Even in these days of digital transition, where local accountability news has been cut back in traditional outlets, you can still get some news. I’d wager the newsless of Chicago haven’t even looked at websites like Project Vote Smart. It’s easier to blame “the media” than it is to change our own news consumption.
Too much comfort news is worse for the body politic than too much comfort food. Too many fat people and we get rising healthcare costs. Too many fat-headed people, and we can’t think clearly enough to fix the problem of rising healthcare costs — our elections mean little or nothing, our government becomes a joke and corruption and confusion soar. Is it any wonder that our public servants in Washington have such difficulty with compromise when they can’t even agree on the basic facts?
The answer, obviously, is to watch what we feed our brains. Stop blocking out so much of the world, eat some informative fruits and vegetables along with that sweet stuff about the movies and teams you love. Make yourself uncomfortable once in a while by trying to seek out and understand facts that do not mesh with your opinions. Try going on a news diet, where you limit those news carbs and beef up the protein. If you created your own South Beach Diet for news, what would that look like?
At the foundation where I work, we realize this is easier said than done. It isn’t just a question of willpower. A person needs a plan. To be a first-class citizen in this networked digital age, you need the skills of digital-media fluency. Take a look at where you are getting your news. Usually you should eat less from your favorite information sources and more from a variety of sources.
At the Knight Foundation, from our Miami headquarters, we invest in a lot of programs that make up the world of digital media fluency — digital literacy, news media literacy, civic literacy. Our partners are libraries, universities and K-12 schools. We hope over time this will grow demand for healthy news.
The Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities concluded after a bipartisan review of America’s community news system that digital media fluency should be present at all levels of education. But there’s even more to it. Knight invests in journalism excellence (the art of making important news interesting, making raw-broccoli news into tasty broccoli soup). We push for journalism education and public media reform, helping legacy institutions learn new ways to inform and engage with communities. We work to accelerate media innovation so that the best of the news and information humanity has to offer can be easily created, found, shared and used.
The foundation believes that a healthy flow of news and information is just as important to communities as healthy air or water. Yet we’re under no illusion about who is in the driver’s seat on the issue of media consumption. We the people are. We get the media we deserve. It reflects what we demand. More and more, we are the media.
In the end, what’s true for food is true for news: We are what we eat. This makes the best advice quite simple. As Knight Chair and food journalist Michael Pollan says — "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." When you think of your information diet, try this mantra: "Consume news. Not too carelessly. Mostly facts."
Eric Newton is senior advisor to the president at the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. This essay was adapted from a speech given this year at the University of Nebraska. Newton’s writings on journalism and media issues are at knightfoundation.org.