A Healthy News Diet

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The clock is ticking. You only have so much time to click that news alert before it disappears into the eternal void of your notifications bar. The headline sounded interesting, but you weren’t able to carve out the five minutes to read it before it eventually bit the dust after 24 or 12 or however many hours your settings dictate. Or maybe you were just full. Full of so much news that you felt like puking up all those little chunks of information into the toilet bowl of your mind. Sometimes that’s what you have to do: gorge on news and then purge yourself by ignoring those alerts if only for a few hours. You can’t read all the news. The idea of your parents reading the entire Sunday paper makes you want to vomit again. There has to be a healthy news diet that doesn’t leave you craving information but also lets you digest the days events comfortably.

There are people that try it at the extremes. Recently, The New York Times published a feature called “The Man Who Knew Too Little” about someone dubbed, “the most ignorant man in America.” On Nov. 8, Erik Hagerman of Glouster, Ohio decided that he wanted no part of the news. He knew that Donald Trump had won the presidential election and like a blackjack dealer, or Garry Shandling’s shrink, he threw up his hands and said “I’m done.” From that moment on, Hagerman turned off all social media, informed friends and family to keep him out of the loop and now only checks the weather and real estate listings. This would be the eating equivalent of fasting. He admits that he’s bored most of the time, but he gets some smug sense of self-satisfaction out of what he refers to as his “experiment” or what I call willful ignorance.

Hagerman describes his life as if he is some sort of zen master like Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh or Buddha. But in reality, this blissful unknowingness that he lives in has actual consequences on people. Hagerman lives in Glouster, Ohio which is a part of Athens County, a sleepy town at the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains that does hold surprisingly large significance in the world of environmental sustainability. Due to Hagerman’s self-imposed blackout, he has missed important debates within the community concerning the future of fracking industry in Athens, which could stand to effect hundreds of farms in the county including Hagerman’s own pig farm. But for the most part, Hagerman’s “blockade,” as he has dubbed it, has been very successful in keeping out information on issues that don’t affect him directly. Having been born in this country, he has no concerns over the immigration debate. He has no children and therefore has no concern about them being shot at school. Hagerman is fortunate enough to have no stake in many national issues, a luxury most Americans cannot afford.

On another end of the spectrum is New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo who, for two months, only got news from a hardcopy newspaper. If Hagerman was fasting, Manjoo went vegan. This method of consumption is still a reality for some older Americans, but for the vast majority of Americans the very notion of only getting news from a newspaper sounds straight out of Amish country. This meant no social media, TV news or anything else that didn’t come from print and ink, once a day. There were some benefits to this limited approach to information. For one, every piece of news that Manjoo read was fact checked and verified by an editor. This meant that he was fortunate enough to miss the string of false reports about the Parkland shooter that proliferated through every timeline on Twitter. But it also meant that while Manjoo avoided the fake details about Parkland, he also avoided all other details about the shooting until he got the paper the next morning.

That is what much of Manjoo’s experiment came down to: patience. What he and so many other news consumers lacked was the patience to wait for the whole story to unfold before diving in. It’s a similar concept to making pizza. When it’s finally ready and you pull it out of the oven, you want to bite right in and enjoy all the details. But you have to wait for it to cool and develop before you get right into it or else the roof of your mouth is going to end up burnt and you’ll be misinformed.

Patience is the essence of a healthy news diet. I for one can’t stand the cantankerous ramblings of older generations that talk about how technology has ruined “the young people.” Technology is essential in moving society forward. However one of the biggest drawbacks I have seen is a massive decrease in people's’ level of patience. When texting somebody on an iPhone you can know when they are replying so you don’t have to wait around for a response. Whenever there’s a lull in conversation, concerts or even class, I see people reach for their phones because we require constant stimulation.

There are methods of news gathering that do account for this fault in our society. Stories about developing events like speeches or catastrophes are updated in real-time with the most recent information available. But there is a policy in regard to these types of blogs to “post first and edit later.” Thus strikes at the core of one of the tenets of journalism. We as readers have just as much responsibility as journalists to verify the information we are taking in. We trust the fruit we get at the grocery store is good, but we still wash it before we eat it. We must remember to do the same with our news: to be patient and allow it to ripen, and then when it does make sure to properly inspect it ourselves. Otherwise you end up poisoned by stale information.