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.