In Defense of News
Read news, not too much, mostly facts.
Michael Pollan’s 2006 book In Defense of Food attempts to answer the question “What should I eat?” with a single-line guide to healthful, conscious consumption in today’s modern food environment. It is this:
In Defense of Food is a follow-up to his previous work, “Omnivore’s Dilemma”, which describes the modern American way of eating, and how we got there. The (simplified) argument goes like this:
Humans evolved in a food-scarce environment, where knowing “what I can eat” was essential to survival. Evolving omnivorousness allowed them to consume a broad variety of things and to thrive and spread in diverse regions and changing climates. After the advent of fire, farming, and the previously unthinkable concept of food surpluses, the question “What can I eat?” shifted to “What should I eat?”.
Pollan posits that (for a few thousand years) region, culture, and traditional cuisines provided a guiding light to this question, and most societies settled into something resembling sustainability. But with the rise of the cultural melting pot experiment that is America -and now much of the western world- that guiding light of a single culture was lost, and what Americans were left with was the confusion of seemingly always changing food science, fad-diets, and (importantly to this essay) anxiety over what’s best for us.
That anxiety was then capitalized on by large industrial “food” manufacturers who created a broad variety of impossible-to-resist but nutritionally deficient products. As diabetes and obesity rates skyrocketed in America, the companies would advertise a specific, but marginal benefit to their products (A popular example being sugary cereal as “part of a balanced breakfast”), and funded imperfect scientific studies that shifted the blame off of their products. As a result, an already-confused populace made even poorer choices and preventable health issues in America skyrocketed.
You can probably see where this is going.
The modern news environment is a confusing, cacophonous, mess. For most of the past century the question of where to get your news was -like food used to be- largely determined by region. Americans watched one (or two) of their handful of local news stations, subscribed to their local newspaper, and listened to their local radio stations. Niche topics were also subscribed to in the form of magazines. Personal news, like wedding and baby announcements, or just “catching up”, had to be manually spread, in letters with stamps and phone calls with long distance charges.
With the rise of the internet, all of these news sources (the ones that survived, at least) are now primarily found online along with personal news. Similarly to our omnivorous ancestors, the question today for (mental) health-conscious consumers shifts from “what news can I read?” to “what news should I read"?
A variety of sources is more reliable …right?
Similarly to the industrialized, high-calorie, processed food companies, every “news” website is telling you they’re a healthful, trustworthy source, even if they don’t have any actual journalists on their payroll. Many consumers, overwhelmed by the options, choose to hedge their bets and get their news from an aggregate site like Facebook, Reddit, or Twitter with the logic that social media is not perfect, but it’s easier than vetting everyone individually.
What Lucky Charms’ advertising neglects to mention is that they are indeed “part of a balanced breakfast”, only in as much as there is the entire rest of the breakfast too. They do not mention that the breakfast would actually be healthier without the Lucky Charms at all. Reddit, Twitter and Facebook like to give the impression they are serving up a buffet with a wide variety of equally valid stories worth considering, but there is poison at the buffet.
Furthermore, these social media sites are not simply “mixing in real news with inauthentic sources”. They are prioritizing emotionally charged content, regardless of it’s veritability, because that’s what keeps people scrolling. It is not the goal of sugary foods to be unhealthy, it is their goal to be addictive. Similarly, it is not the goal of social media sites to be anything other than addictive. The destruction of our attention spans (not to mention the destruction of a shared civic reality) is simply a byproduct of our unending mental binge on a bad news diet.
“If you aren’t paying for it, you are the product.”
This internet adage cannot be repeated enough. Here’s an older one: “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.” The second phrase originates with bars in the 1930’s offering a “free” lunch to encourage drinking (an unhealthy and somewhat addictive behavior) in pursuit of increased revenue. The patrons’ wallets weren’t paying for the lunch, but their livers certainly were.
Consider every service you use online and what is it you are actually paying with. Attention to ads? Attention to some Twitter or YouTube personality? Reporting the news is hard work and nobody does it for free. That person is getting paid money, but it’s likely from someone who’s not you. Do you trust them?
Read news¹, not too much², pay for it³.
¹Real, verifiable reports from professional journalists with a respected track record.
²There is only so much news in a given day that you need to know. The rest is filler. Continuing to binge after the main course is bad for your focus, mental health and civil society.
³With money (Because there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch).
Ask yourself: “Did I seek this out? Or was it presented to me for ‘free’?”
Ask yourself: “Am I being told the facts? Or am I being told how to feel about some facts?”
Ask yourself what level of poor sources you’re willing to tolerate in your everyday. We all have our guilty news-pleasures, be it celebrity gossip, an extra spicy tweet without proof (or context), or especially the endless, endless world of “news commentary” podcasts and YouTube channels.
An occasional “candy bar” won’t hurt much. But it needs to be understood that while these things are packaged with news or as news, they aren’t news. Not in the way your grandmother would understand.
Highly industrialized and processed food is very cheap per calorie. But poor health (and diabetes treatment) can get very expensive, both financially but also emotionally. Consumers who pay less money for food are paying for it with their physical and mental health. The same thing is happening in our information landscape today. We are gorging ourselves on addictive and unhealthy sources and we’re left with a warped version of reality that leaves us perpetually stressed, anxious, and emotionally at capacity.
In the age of the internet, “what can I read?” has near-infinite answers. But as a result of highly addictive, informationally-deficient content, and alrogithmically-engineered-to-keep-you-focused apps, many people are so factually-disoriented that haven’t even got to the point of asking themselves what they should read.
We can’t land the plane, but we still need to put on our own oxygen masks first if we are to be of any help.
Also, importantly, not everyone can afford to pay for healthy food, let alone healthy journalism. But those of us who can, have a personal, and civic responsibility to do so.
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Part II: “What News Is”
Part II: “What News ain’t”