How to build a healthy news diet

Developers, journalists, and educators are coming together to prototype all sorts of applications to help track consumption, discover news, and make it more relevant

In 2012, developer Clay Johnson published The Information Diet. His premise was simple: Information, like food, impacts our wellbeing as individuals and as a society, so healthy consumption habits are an important skillset to develop. He encourages readers to consider both the causes and effects of mindless, gluttonous information consumption: What are its impacts on our daily life, our self-identity, our attention span, and our ability to informedly participate in democracy? How can we develop and practice healthy, empowering consumption habits?

The information nutrition metaphor has since become popular in news literacy and media technology spaces. More and more often, developers, journalists, and educators are coming together to prototype all sorts of applications to help track consumption, discover news, and make it more relevant. In 2012, at MozFest’s Election Hacking session, a team of developers sketched out a browser plug-in visualizing political coverage consumption. In 2013, it was prototyped at Northwestern University’s Knight Lab into a Google Chrome extension called Slimformation, which tracks reading activity, visualizes it, allows goal-setting, and recommends action items to meet those goals. And last month, at a journalism hackathon held at MIT Media Lab, groups prototyped various news-diet improvement tools including BombPopper, which allows readers to rate how the news impacts their mood, and Newstrition, a food-diet inspired plug-in (that I participated in creating) which works similarly to Slimformation.

These tools, while largely early-stage projects or prototypes, are a direct response to Johnson’s call to become aware of and intentional about information consumption. And they hold great potential to help news literacy educators guide their students in developing such habits.

“I think there is a real danger in the digital age to just view everything as content, and with that comes kind of a false equivalency that everything has the same standards, credibility, or value,” says Peter Adams, the News Literacy Project’s senior vice president for educational programs, who has also taken great inspiration from Johnson’s book. “I really like Clay Johnson’s point that consuming highly partisan pundits can be really indulgent in the same way it can be indulgent to sit and eat too many gummy bears.”

In addition to providing empty calories, diets high in partisan punditry do little more than confirm preconceived worldviews that distract viewers from thinking critically about issues at hand. As a first step towards becoming aware of their consumption habits, NLP offers a lesson on “information neighborhoods” which differentiates between seven types of content—news, opinion, entertainment, advertising, propaganda, publicity, and raw information. Students are asked to categorize each piece of information they encounter by determining its primary purpose and creator. It’s conceivable that developers working on consumption-tracking apps could use a framework like NLP’s information neighborhoods to visualize their diets in a way that is slightly more slanted towards news literacy than simply breaking down source and topic like Slimformation and Newstrition do. “Information neighborhood” could be a far more illuminating taxonomy.

Meanwhile, at the Center for News Literacy at Stony Brook, where the curriculum is a bit more fleshed out than NLP’s (Stony Brook teaches undergraduates while NLP teaches shorter drop-in lessons in middle and high schools), students are taught not only to identify information categories, but also how the relationship between multiple media sources work. Students are taught, for example, that television news can be misleading because of the inherent limits of the medium.

“When we do our lecture on deconstructing TV news, what we do is say that TV as a medium as strengths and weaknesses,” explains Rick Hornik, director of overseas partnership programs at the Center for News Literacy. “Weaknesses are things like, if you don’t have good video, you don’t have a story. Or if it’s an emotional story, sometimes video can manipulate you a little bit. Therefore, you can’t really just rely on television news. You should supplement it with things like NPR or wire services or whatever news outlet that you have come to trust.”

While no explicit news diet coursework exists, Hornik encourages students to regularly consume news bulletins, like NPR’s “Top of the Hour,” which is easily accessible online and on mobile, and wire services, like Reuters’ iPhone app. To these I’d add the New York Times Now app, and Mic (formerly PolicyMic)’s email newsletter, which are two of my favorite, easy-to-digest news roundups. Eventually, students can build their own network of sources—their own varied diet.

While the nutrition metaphor works well for conscious news consumption, its obvious pitfall is that there is no consensus on what “healthy” news items are. In lieu of a consensus, Johnson’s suggestion—to eliminate distraction and increase focus, so a consumer has the space to gain perspective and think critically about the media he or she does decide to consume—is a worthy one.

Starting with a clutter-free information diet gives readers a greater chance of focusing on what is actually happening and what is actually important. “When people become outrage-free, these problems become very obvious,” he says, in reference to the habit many have of reacting with outrage to largely meaningless news items on social media, a type of noise he has personally been able to avoid by structuring his consumption time carefully. (He plans to begin a second edition of the book later this year, incorporating topics such as the expansion of consumption through social media, virality, and the filter bubble.)

“If we were to say, ‘What are the biggest problems we have in America today?’” Johnson continues, “I think most people would say either government spending or maybe climate change, or healthcare or maybe guns. But nobody would say, ‘I think our democracy might be suffering from a scalability problem.’” This, he told me, is caused by “news reductionism,” that is, the tendency of news organizations to reduce issues into what sells (and at times, as Orwell might say, what is easy to disguise in euphemism).

According to Adams, there are two ways of thinking about the “prescription” side of the news diet. “You build tools to help students log their activity and give them goals, but what doesn’t get addressed there is this grey area about what your vegetables are.”

“I really see a lot of potential in people going out of their way to put themselves in the way of high-quality information and of opinion pieces that are different from their own,” Adams continues. “That might mean following some pundits on Twitter with whom you generally don’t agree but you respect and find fair. And actually go ahead and read those. That to me is more like eating your peas than reading a straight news report from a source everyday, for example.”

This can be accomplished by following the right combination of sources on social media. A host of tools to help with this exist, such as Wiser, which is something of a news sharing and discovery platform that can be personalized for internal use by an organization following industry-specific news, much like annotation tools like Ponder are used in schools. And it can also be used as a social reading platform by individuals or small communities. The trick is to isolate a news-reading platform and make sure it is supplying a good balance of content. This might be accomplished through a combination of personal choice, human curation, and algorithmic content suggestions (such as Facebook’s related content function. It’s reviewed here by Adams, who also sees potential in using algorithms to detect echo chambers and potentially disrupt them).

“My fantasy app that will probably never exist would be to have a nutrition label on websites so we could immediately see what is in the piece and how much value it has to us,” adds Maureen Freeman, Washington, DC, regional coordinator of the News Literacy Project. “But it comes down to education and people learning to do it themselves, because obviously there are not labels on information. And it’s worth it to take the time and give yourself quality.”

Freeman’s hypothetical app isn’t that outlandish when considering the fact that in order to create a product like Slimformation or Newstrition, website content has to be catalogued and categorized. Both run a webpage’s URL or content through a database that sorts it into a category, which then shows up on the pie chart breakdown of what a user has been reading.

So while there are no common standards on what constitutes a healthy diet, there does seem to be a consensus on what healthy practices are: Clear away distractions to manage consumption time (by using GTD tools or these tools compiled by Johnson), develop a process to assess the reliability of a news source (imagine an app that offers a round-up of controversial past content, press criticism, or media mentions of a source discovered through Twitter), and prioritize newsfeed content (the way that Johnson, for instance, limits his consumption to mainly local news and news relevant to his writing and research on politics).

“I think that the [food] metaphor really drives home the seriousness of the role that information plays in our lives and why it is important to pay attention to what you take in, or what you expose yourself to,” says Adams. And through the cultivation of mindful habits, and with the aid of tools that help facilitate them, news consumers can construct diets that encourage long-term learning and civic action.

Funding for this coverage is provided by the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Jihii Jolly is a freelance journalist and video producer in New York City