Developing a Healthy News Diet

by James Wallace Harris, 5/21/23

Michael Pollan created a small book about eating healthy called Food Rules. As an analogy, I’d like to create a set of sensible rules about consuming the news. Pollan distilled his list of rules down to three simple sentences, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants,” but it really takes reading his book to understand that mantra.

What I would like to do is develop a similar simple mantra about my daily news consumption but I’ll have to work out the details first. Pollan emphasized eating whole foods rather than processed foods. Is there such a thing as whole unprocessed news? “Not too much” is an obvious target since we obviously consume too much news. Finding an analogy for “mostly plants” will be interesting.

What would be the equivalent of nutritious news? Experience has taught me that some news is unhealthy, and I often get news indigestion. I also admit I’m bloated and overweight from too much news consumption.

Like whole food and junk food, we prefer junk news over whole news. I spend several hours a day nibbling on news from many sources. Most of which is forgotten immediately. I wonder if my first rule should be:

#1 – Ignore easily forgettable news

We’re used to clicking on anything that catches our fancy while idling away moments on our smartphones. Essentially, this kind of news is gossip and titillation. Basically, we’re bored or restless. We should use that time in better ways, especially if it exercises our minds. Read real news instead. Or, do something active. Playing games, listening to music, or audiobooks, is more nutritious than never-ending bites of clickbait.

Everyone bitches about information overload but who does anything about it? I’ve learned from intermittent fasting that my body appreciates having a good rest each day from eating. I believe I need to apply the same idea to news consumption.

#2 – Limit your hours consuming the news

I find 16:8 fasting works well for eating. I’m thinking of a 22:2 fast for news is what I’m going to aim for at the moment. Two hours of news consumption a day might sound like a lot, but if you add up all the forms of news I consume including television, magazines, online newspapers, YouTube, and news feeds, RSS feeds, I can easily go beyond two hours.

We should also separate news from learning and entertainment. Learning something new could be considered a form of news. I’m not going to count educational pursuits in my news time. And if you enjoy reading nonfiction books or watching documentaries on TV, that shouldn’t count as news either. However, shows like 60 Minutes, CBS Sunday Morning, and The Today Show can be considered informative entertainment news. Some people just prefer news shows for fun rather than watching fictional shows. I’m not sure if they should count or not.

What we really want is to stay informed about the world so that we interact with reality wisely. Humans have an extremely difficult time processing information. We think we’re far smarter than we are. We constantly delude ourselves. And we think our opinions matter when 99.999% of the time they don’t. Most people think they are experts on countless topics after having consumed just a few hours of news. They think they know better than real experts who have put tens of thousands of hours into studying their specialty.

#3 – Stop assuming you know anything

I believe the real key to understanding the news is being able to tell the difference between opinion and significant data. The real goal of news consumption should be finding the best data, and that means getting into statistics.

Unfortunately, the news industry is overwhelmed with talking heads. Everyone wants to be an expert, and all too often most news consumers tend to latch onto self-appointed experts they like. News has become more like a virus than information processing.

I read and watch a lot of columnists and programs about computers, stereo equipment, and other gadgets. Most are based on personal impressions of equipment individuals have bought or been loaned from manufacturers. These tech gurus are a good analogy for what I’m talking about. Most of the news we take in daily is from individuals processing limited amounts of information and giving us their opinion. What we really want is Consumer Reports, Rtings, or the Wirecutter, where large amounts of data are gathered from a variety of sources, and statistically analyzed.

This is just a start on designing my news diet. I want to keep current on a long list of topics, but that’s like learning about all the vitamins and nutrients my body needs. News nutrition will be a vastly more complicated topic. What are the essential vitamins I need every day? Is it politics, national and international affairs, economics, crime, immigration, ecology, etc?

Do I need to know about everything? Is that what an informed citizen needs to do? Take immigration. Is anything I think about immigration affects the situation at the border? Does voting liberal or conservative even affect anything at the border? I can barely maintain order in my house, why should I believe I can organize all of reality on Earth? Maybe my last two rules should be:

#4 – Know my limitations

#5 – Pursue the news I can actually use

Like nutrition, news is a complicated subject that’s hard to understand and can easily confuse.


15 thoughts on “Developing a Healthy News Diet”

  1. This is an exceptionally hard topic, and an exceptionally rare one to read about – one that is as necessary as it is exceptional, I think.

    I remember in the 1980s we called it infoglut. Was it the 1980s? Combined with the short bursts of social media, they’ve found the average attention span of people has gone down to 47 seconds.

    I just go into submarine mode. Once I realized that the world actually does continue when I don’t pay attention, it became increasingly easy to just focus on the important stuff.

    The trouble has been figuring out what the important stuff is. I’ve made strides in this area, but… 🙂

  2. I read the WALL STREET JOURNAL every day. I listen to NPR every day. Every week I read THE ECONOMIST. My wife and I watch the CBS Evening News every day. I read the SUNDAY NEW YORK TIMES. That pretty much delivers all the news we need.

    1. George, that’s a solid healthy news diet. Do you get paper copies of the WSJ, NYT and THE ECONOMIST? For many years I was a faithful CBS Evening News viewer. Then after we got married, Susan I switched to ABC News for many years. But for the last few decades it’s been The NBC Nightly News.

  3. i reckon we’re back to a question of what journalists and correspondents are emphasizing in their reports. it’s interesting that the wagner outfit, which seems to be a mercenary force of garrisons gorillas /dirty dozen types draws a lot of interest, whereas the azov battalion apparently made up .of neofascist hardasses has been pretty much ignored.are we back tobetwee the old adage that the enemy of my enemy is my friend.assuming this isnt a prelude to a nuclear conflagration (anyone else remember a british flick titled THREADS circa 1984?) , i wonder if that will turn out to be one of the overlooked sidebars while vladimir putin attempts to reestablish Greater Muscovy. the twenty-first century might someday be remembered as an era of nationalist revival, i had kind of anticipated that cable television and social media would have had the opposite. then again, i thought acid and rock would be the salvation of society.wish i had a couple bucks for every time i heard the phrase, ‘sixties are over, babe,’circa 1978;at the very least it would have covered next months rent.

    addenda: fourth line ought to read: are we back to between today and yesterday, the old adage that the enemy of my enemy is my friend;but assuming this isn’t the prelude

    1. Ed, it’s interesting you bring up Thread because I recently watched it and wrote about it on my science fiction blog.

      How Many Post-Apocalyptic Stories Do We Need to Read?

      The return to nationalism has been a major shock to me. I thought we were over all that. Last year I read a three-volume history of the world and it was quite obvious that humans don’t change. It was also quite obvious that one person, a strong man, is always getting a bunch of people killed.

      Did you have a girlfriend back in 1978 that nagged you for being stuck in the past?

      1. interesting query; i was in wichita from the autumn of 1974 to the summer of 1978. a lady named diane who shacked up with me from summer ’76 to midwinter ’77 was fond of reminding me that the 1960s were over(‘back down the road’ as she often said.) 1978 was a lady named rachel who wanted to study geology. she got uptight with my observation that chicks were as intelligent as dudes, they simply manifested it differently, by which i meant they were intuitive rather than rational. she took off to study at the colorado school of mines; i lost track of her when i moved to chicago later that same year. i wouldnt be surprised if she wound up working for an oil company.

  4. i rewrote my fourth line, but posted it on yr column CAN I AI READ MINDS. hopefully, it’s somewhat more coherent

      1. yeah, much appreciated. i had prostate surgery on monday and the words got in the way; y’see, the mind is alert, but the body forgets. what i reckon i was trying to express was a feeling of going into reuns, of history repeating itself. paramilitary types and vigilantes still make me nervous. they’ll start off going after ethnic and religious minorities, move on to sexual nonconformists , and finish up with anyone whose last name ends in a vowel. xenophobia isnt as deeply ingrained over here as it is in russia, but it’s always been a part of the yankee mindset. not that i’m putting it down necessarily; time was i’d get my jollies telling cubanos in miami conversing in espanol,’oye,hermano, yer in america now. speak the language of freedom.’ i got responses ranging from baffledf incomprehension (que? que?) to uptight hostility (go mine chewer own business,heepee maricon!) as o.j. simpson would say, “yeah, go figure.’

        1. I feel for you Ed. I had prostate surgery a couple years ago. I had a Urolift procedure trying to avoid getting a TURP procedure. However, I worry that I might still have to go back for the TURP someday.

          Hope your recovery is fast.

          Have you ever read The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosinski? It does into European xenophobia, and made me realize just how unevolved most people are.

          1. fourteen days and counting…they zapped a bladder stone with a laser and took out a chunk of my prostate. i’m cautiously optomistic; did fifty pushups befgore my first cup of coffee this morning. (drifting even further, i learned the other day that allen toussaint wrote JAVA.)

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