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.