Like a corner fast food restaurant, information is available all the time and never very far away. This around-the-clock information environment has the potential to produce a better informed citizenry. But a world of quick sound bytes also runs the risk of becoming as empty and unhealthy as fast food, leaving us too full for the hearty “long-form” story. Is our news and media consumption too many Twitter snacks and RSS candy bars?
The information diet is a popular trope that has been adopted in various news articles, magazines and blogs—most prominently, perhaps, on Clay Johnson's InfoVegan blog and forthcoming book on the subject. The BBC's Andrew Marr claims, “Fast news has had the same effect on our minds as fast food has had on our physiques.” “How Much Information?,” a 2009 Report on American Consumers from the University of California, San Diego, estimates that the average American household annually consumes 3.6 zettabytes of information, which means “...the average American’s information consumption of 34 gigabytes a day is the equivalent of about one-fifth of a notebook computer’s hard drive, depending on the model.”
Even before the food metaphor caught on, Daniel Shenk's 1997 Data Smog: Surviving the Information Glut opined about the dangers of “information obesity.” “The challenge is to get the most relevant, meaningful, contextualized information so that we can turn that into useful knowledge and wisdom,” Shenk advised. “Just as fat has replaced starvation as this nation’s number one dietary concern, information overload has replaced information scarcity as an important new emotional, social, and political problem.”
The USDA provides dietary guidelines for healthy Americans that are based on scientific studies and evidence, so I wondered: how might that translate to information and media consumption? The Knight Commission Report on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracyoffers some ideas. After asking the question: “Are You a Healthy Information Community?,” the Knight report identified 8 areas to examine when taking stock of good and healthy information community:
1) Government information and online services accessible through a central and easy to use portal;
2) A local government committed to a policy of transparency;
3) Quality journalism through local newspapers, local television and radio stations, and online sources;
4) Citizens with effective opportunities to have their voices heard and to affect public policy;
5) A vibrant public library, or other public center for information that provides digital resources and professional assistance;
6) Ready access to information that enhances quality of life (such as health, education resources, employment, social services, public transit, emergency services, arts and entertainment) provided by trusted intermediary organizations;
7) Local schools equipped with computer and high-speed Internet access, as well as curricula that support digital and media literacy; and
8) High-speed Internet available to all citizens.
So what would a healthy information diet look like? Of course, each person's individual information-BMI will be different, but using the Report as our USDA standard, let's build from there, with some of the media choices below serving as short-hand versions of that media genre.
Examining the media and information groups:
Free municipal information, national news (both sides): Good municipal information that citizens can use daily and with ease is an important part of a healthy information and media diet. Understanding both sides of an issue better informs your opinion, instead of just safeguarding it with partisan rhetoric.
Good government news: A committed government policy on transparency and openness is key for a healthy information diet. When citizens have access to government records and information that they can use productively to keep their government accountable, public trust in their elected officials is restored. As the Knight Commission report says: “The public's business should be done in public.”
Local journalism and media: One of the recurring themes at this week's Digital District: Local News and Online Media Access in Washington event here at the New America Foundation was that hyperlocal coverage does create a rich network of information while providing an on-the-ground perspective of a neighborhood. When citizens can get their news and media from a local neighborhood newspaper or blogger, the news is more likely to relate to their community. This helps further a sense of community engagement.
News commentary: As Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler said in Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness, we often rely on echo chambers as a default heuristic to deeper entrench our beliefs. It's easier to anchor a set belief to other like-minded media and information sources than to question long-held conclusions. Over the long run, better media and digital literacy will make us all better scrutinizers of editorials that masquerade as news. In the meantime, chew the fat on editorialized news.
Social media: This was a difficult category to place, especially since many municipalities now use Twitter for emergency alert systems. Curation of quality social media is key to this part of the diet. Clay Johnson's recent post “Are Facebook and Twitter Bad for Your Information Diet?” has other thoughts about this, too. Like Type-II diabetes—a disease in which an excess of sugars can, over time, reconfigure the hardwiring of the body—an excess of social media may trigger us into thinking that the whole story can be told in 140 characters or less.
Celebrity and gossip media (Use Sparingly): To cut the fat, this is an easy place to start.
While this suggested media and information diet won't eliminate all temptations, it's a guide to start thinking about how many calorie bytes you are taking in. This isn't meant to be a recipe for success—just food for thought—and like a personalized exercise and eating plan, each person's healthy media diet will be different.