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Q: How do you prevent information overload but stay informed?

A:

This is one of the greatest challenges of our time. We are consuming an enormous amount of information on a daily basis, but we are not necessarily more informed or even staying informed.

According to Nielsen, U.S. adults now spend more than 12 hours a day connected to some form of media. But even if we devote most of our waking hours to the information streaming onto our screens, another 2.5 quintillion bytes of data are created each day. (In case you are wondering, a quintillion is a 1 followed by 18 zeros.)

Credit: Nielsen

As alerts flash, news breaks, and unread posts pile up, it’s no wonder we feel overwhelmed and overloaded. Yet is it hard to resist clicking on just one more link. Our intense appetite for news that alerts, connects and diverts us is hardwired into our DNA.  “It actually takes energy to avoid information, because resisting the urge to search means overcoming millions of years of evolution. And when information is all around us, avoiding it can be exhausting,” says Clay Johnson in his book, The Information Diet.

Fortunately, the solution to this digital age problem will be familiar to anyone who has tried to lose weight. It begins with assessing your relationship with information and going on a healthy news diet.

We’ve all heard the saying, “You are what you eat.” The same holds true for the news we consume. Like any healthy diet, we need to be much more selective about the information we take in every day. Jessie Conover says in her article, “A Healthy News Diet,” we need to minimize “news junk food’ and maximize “healthy news vegetables,” much like the food pyramid.  Here’s how she describes those terms:

  • News junk food. News junk food includes attractive fake news, hyper-partisan news that confirms our beliefs, coverage that mocks viewpoints with which we disagree, and any clickbait. You probably need to consume less of it, and you would be fine if you eliminated it from your news diet entirely.
  • News comfort food. Opinions and editorials from people with whom we share an ideology or common ideas, partisan news, and attractive headlines consistent with our own interests are okay in moderation, but we shouldn’t consume too much of them, or we risk reinforcing our preconceived notions without properly challenging them. 
  • News vegetables. News vegetables include thoughtful opinions from people with whom we disagree, in-depth policy explanations, world news, and news about unfamiliar topics. It is likely that you are deficient in these news vegetables, especially if you get most of your news through social networks or specific-interest intermediaries. Like with vegetables, a diversity of sources is good. Getting all your vegetables from the Wall Street Journal or Vox isn’t terribly balanced, though it’s better than not reading those sources.

So, if you’re up for creating a healthier news diet, here are four steps you can take:

Credit: Ad Fontes
  1. Be more selective about the news you consume: This doesn’t mean limiting your consumption arbitrarily–it means being more discriminating.  Pick one to two go-to news outlets that you trust. Sign up for their morning newsletter and alerts.
  2. Include a variety of sources and platforms: If you get all of your news from online sites, add some cable or network news or public radio and vice versa.
  3. Vary the perspectives of your news sources: Humans are programmed to look for information that affirms pre-existing beliefs, so you need to expose yourself to other points of view. Check out this media bias chart by Vanessa Otero to see how 104 news outlets rank on reliability and bias. According to her analysis, only Bloomberg and the Christian Science Monitor are truly neutral.
  4. Add an international news source: Most of us are deficient in this type of news and have no idea what’s going on in the rest of the world or how the rest of the world views our country. If you’re not sure which ones to try, check out The Guardian UK Edition or the BBC Newshour on NPR. (I love the BBC World Service and Witness History at 4-5 a.m.—yes, I am an insomniac.)

Staying informed and staying sane do not have to be mutually exclusive in our 24/7, rapid-fire news cycle.  Johnson says it best: “Like any good diet, the information diet works best if you think about it not as denying yourself information, but as consuming more of the right stuff and developing healthy habits,” and of course, finding the balance that works for you.