A nutritious news diet

What passes for news can be trivial or shocking. Careful news consumers think about what they’re taking in.

Lucas Jackson/Reuters/File
A student stares into a computer screen during a class on how to use Facebook at a branch of the New York Public Library in New York. The internet opens up a world of information sources. Each user chooses his or her own online news 'diet.'

Many people spend a great deal of time thinking about their diets. They try to eat the right foods in the right quantities. Sometimes they may wish they’d made better choices.

Do news consumers spend as much time thinking about the news content they’re taking in via television, print, or, ever more likely, online?

What is the quality and quantity of this news diet?

As food consumers, many people are turning toward choosing quality over quantity, eating foods that are more carefully grown or prepared and that provide better nutrition. They are thoughtful about what they consume.

Might there be an analogy to the way people consume the news? Do they rush to take in as many quick bites as possible, especially responding to bites that send a sensation of quick amusement or shock?

How can people know if their news diet is a good one?

Here are some questions a thoughtful news consumer could ask:

Is this news nourishing me? Does it help me really understand what is happening or is it just intended to provoke an emotional response?

How does this news report make me feel? Do I come away with thoughts that are angry or hopeless or discouraged?

Do I go only to a few familiar places to consume news, especially news “flavors” that fulfill my expectations by always confirming what I “already know”? A more balanced news diet might include several thoughtful sources that leave one with thoughts such as “I hadn’t considered that viewpoint before” or “I hadn’t thought about that possible solution.”

With access to a flood of news from around the globe online, people can easily overindulge in stories stuffed with shock or sentimentality. But they may regret later the effect these stories have on their mental digestion.

This isn’t meant as an advertisement for this news organization, though the Monitor is deeply committed to giving readers news that will truly nourish them. Many other news organizations are working hard at it, too. And as the definition of what journalism is expands, people are finding that “news” can come from more and more places, including print and online magazines that provide in-depth reporting or online or print books that are able to dig even deeper into a news topic.

With sources of news proliferating, it’s worth asking what effect watching, listening to, or reading a given news report is having.

Noting the possible ill effects, some people are turning away from following the news altogether. They argue that they would be consuming “empty calories” – either mere trivia or useless information. “Why think about what’s happening in Iraq or Ukraine?” they might say. “I can’t affect what’s going on there and, besides, what happens won’t directly affect me.”

But confining online time to conversing with Facebook pals and watching cute cat videos isn’t the answer either. The world needs knowledgeable, engaged citizens who are ready to put thoughtful news stories to use by taking action, whether it’s by voting in an election, helping out as a local volunteer, or praying about a world situation.

Many news reports may seem trivial or dismaying. But consuming the right kind of news can inspire better thinking.

And “You are what you think” just may be an even more important truism than “you are what you eat.”

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