Is There a Media Obesity Problem in America? Should News Have Labels?

    by J. Nathan Matias
    February 17, 2012

    A version of this post first appeared on the Center for Civic Media blog.

    Is our appetite for tasty celebrity news and comfortable opinions creating a toxically polarized society? What should our information diet be, and how would we measure it? Who’s responsible for changing the media?

    At the Center for Civic Media, Clay Johnson, Sean Cash and Ethan Zuckerman recently debated whether the metaphor of media nutrition could help us improve American media. Clay’s recent book, “The Information Diet,” encourages us to apply the nutrition metaphor to how we produce and consume information. Sean is a nutritional economist and a leading expert on food labeling. Ethan is the director of the Center for Civic Media, where we are developing “MediaMeter,” a set of metrics to help companies and consumers understand what’s in our media.



    In his opening talk, Clay argued that online advertising is “killing America.” If media companies derive revenue from clicks, won’t they publish unhealthy, sensationalist, bias-confirming articles rather than high-quality reporting? Clay drew a parallel to the food industry, where consumers’ desires for high-calorie, tasty foods leads companies to create things like this:

    Pizza Hut Japan

    We like pizza more than broccoli because our physiology is wired for a scarcity of food rather than a land of abundance. Cheese is great when you don’t have enough food to last the winter, but that’s no longer our situation. Unfortunately, corporations make the products we like, which leads to junk food and hot dog cheese pizzas, covered in sausage patties and honey.

    Media companies have the same problems as food companies, according to Clay. Cheap, sensational media is easier to make and more popular and profitable than high-quality journalism. It’s this formula of advertising profit, sensationalism, and confirmation bias that drives priorities at companies like Fox and MSNBC, as well as independent producers like Glenn Beck. Readership data shows that opinion tastes better than the news and that it pays to tell us stories that make us feel good. To illustrate this, Clay showed us how Fox News edits an AP story into a sensationalist article. The original story was a report from a public opinion poll on the economy. Fox News cut out around 70% of the content and republished it with the headline, “Obama Has a Big Problem With White Women,” even though the article contained no comments on the president’s views on women.

    i-12da205a46ad8f427f60328253fb9692-clay.jpgClay Johnson, author of “The Information Diet,” says we should apply the nutrition metaphor to how we produce and consume information.

    Sensationalism sells, and news companies naturally shape their business to make money. Clay claims that Fox spends 75% of its budget on personalities and only 25% on the newsroom. CNN, on the other hand, spends 80% on its newsroom, which is five times larger than Fox’s. That, Clay says, is why Fox is more profitable than all of the news broadcasters combined. It simply can produce popular media more quickly and cheaply.

    But Fox is not alone. Clay showed us The AOL Way, the recently leaked internal AOL content business plan. This plan lists revenue and speed as the factors to decide what AOL should cover — completely leaving out values like relevance, importance or fact.

    Clay said this focus on advertising will cause American democracy to fall apart because most of all, we like to read things we agree with. “Who wants to hear the truth when they can hear they’re right?” he asked us. He played Robert Vanderbei’s animated gif of “The Changing Colors of America,” which shows a shift from a generally purple America into one 50 years later which is geographically separated into distinct Democrat and Republican regions.

    How do we change this? Clay thinks we need to get a small number of elite media consumers to choose their diet more carefully. If we do that, then maybe we can influence media organizations to provide better coverage to everyone. Failing that, we should commit to paying for better content behind a paywall, as the Boston Globe is asking readers to do.

    Effectively, Clay wants to start a “slow news” movement in which “infovegans” commit to reading source material rather than the news. Clay showed us a trophic pyramid of media, in which the highest items have the least value, and the bottom item has the most nutrition. In this model, it’s most virtuous to read the congressional record on OpenCongress, somewhat less virtuous to look at the Sunlight Foundation’s website, and least virtuous of all to read the article on Fox News. The news site Politico is somewhere between Sunlight and Fox.

    If enough of us become practicing infovegans as part of a Whole News movement, Clay argues, maybe the mainstream media will start producing better quality news.


    Sean, the nutritional economist on the panel, liked Clay’s metaphor but expressed concerns about how easy it would be for people to become infovegans. He also pointed out the difficulties of nutritional labeling and wondered if news might be even harder. Finally, Sean discussed difficulty of change for consumers, producers and the government alike.

    It’s hard to get rid of our indulgences. Other ways of meeting those desires sneak up on us. People often try to get rid of red meat, but when we try, we can accidentally double our sodium intake. Healthy food is part of a healthy diet, but we need to leave room for our indulgences. By stigmatizing junk food, we can repress our love of pizza and cause cravings and binges. If someone tries to impose a diet on us, we tend to react against that. Sometimes we feel overly confident about our health and eat the nachos anyway.

    Might going cold turkey on the Kardashians lead to strange obsessions, cravings and binges?

    To have a healthy diet, we need to know what’s in our food. This is incredibly hard, even for something like soft drinks, which many governments now want to tax. Should we tax diet sodas and juice drinks with only a small amount of juice? Is a bottled Frappuccino a soft drink? If we start adding nutrients, does something like Diet Coke with Bacon become acceptable?

    If the quality of our media is a societal problem, should this be up to individuals or government? Sean pointed out that in the world of dietary policy, there’s a lot of debate on the role of government, even as the public pressures governments to do more. We expect government intervention in cases of market failure (perhaps it’s too costly to produce good media), the protection of children, and the belief that something is important for societal well-being. Is it really possible to solve the media diet problem with a grassroots infovegan movement? Or can government play a role?

    Finally, Sean reminded us that overconsumption is only one problem. In the world of health, there’s still a problem with “food insecurity,” people’s real hunger and fears of hunger. Sean encouraged us to ask if some people are under-consuming information, and how we can support them.


    To answer these questions, we need to get better data, Ethan argued. Otherwise, we’ll spend all our time debating a metaphor. Ethan thinks the nutritional metaphor is a good one, made popular by Alisa Miller in her TED Talk on how the news shapes the way we see the world. Alisa’s talk shows a skewed map to illustrate how TV coverage can shape the public’s awareness of the world. At the Center for Civic Media, we’re developing tools to make it easier for individuals and media companies to track these things in real time.

    This is important because not everyone cares about the same things. Clay really cares about in-depth political journalism and escaping confirmation bias. Ethan really wants to know world news, and to be confident he’s not missing anything. Other people want to surround themselves with news from their home country, or get away from their computer by listening to the radio.

    Even if we accept Clay’s media priorities, Ethan thinks infoveganism is where Clay’s metaphor breaks down. Is the continuum from Congress to Fox news really the information pyramid? If Clay left the Sunlight Foundation because data wasn’t persuading the public, can we really try to create a movement around reading the data? Ethan argued that journalism helps us by going through that raw data and adding context to it. Instead of stripping away value, don’t media organizations add value by checking facts and adding context?

    Clay disagreed. He said he has never seen a single article which links to a data source. When Ethan asked if he was being dismissive of journalism, Clay said that he found it more dismissive when journalists didn’t link to their sources. Ethan said it was probably unrealistic to ask people to go to the raw data. Clay thinks we should be skeptical of journalists because they don’t give us the whole story.

    Ethan then asked Sean, “Why are we fat?” Should we blame ourselves or the system? Sean thinks we should blame technology, which has made consumption and production cheaper, while packaging it in a more concentrated fashion. It’s far easier to buy prepackaged food than make it ourselves.


    Clay thinks that if 2% of elite readers become infovegans and pay for their news, we can change what the media industry shows the other 98%. Sean disagreed. He pointed out that people will always go for the cheaper product. Ethan pointed out that The Economist, The New York Times, and now the Boston Globe all seem to be doing fairly well with paywalls.


                     From left to right, Sean Cash, Ethan Zuckerman and Clay Johnson debate media health.

    Ethan asked us if there were a way to construct independent public media with state subsidy, perhaps like the Japanese model or the BBC? Can’t we solve this for everyone in a systemic way? Why should we blame ourselves? Clay disagreed, arguing that it’s easier to change consumer behavior than to create state-supported media.

    Perhaps we could put labels on our media, Ethan suggested. At this point, Sean listed the difficulties the government has faced with nutritional labels. People don’t like the government telling them what to do. Companies are hesitant to use labels which they think will hurt business. If companies are given flexibility with labeling, they tend to create misleading labels. And even when labels are mandated by government, as Canada has done with cigarette cartons, people will cover up the labels or choose some other harmful product. Despite this, Ethan hoped that quantitative labels on the news might help us call out companies for producing “large amounts of news-like product” and encourage them to change.

    Tagged: center for civic media food labeling information diet media mediameter mit news obesity

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