A friendly reader pointed out that a writer over at at artplusmarketing just wrote a similar piece on a “Media Guide Pyramid” that covers the idea from a more consumer vs. producer angle. Feel free to check it out afterwards here.
The USDA debuted the original Food Guide Pyramid in 1992 as a means to educate the public on how much of each category of food to eat for a balanced diet. It was created because there was a surplus of unhealthy food available to the public and not enough easily-accessible information to sift through the smorgasbord of choices. It has since come out (ie, why we cannot have nice things) that the agricultural industry lobbyists pushed for a much higher percentage of grains, dairy, and red meat. Despite this skew, the pyramid moved the conversation about diet forward and gave Americans a series of reference points to either agree with or challenge.
It is no secret that the media landscape has become very similar to postwar America’s food crises. There is an overabundance of choices, many of dubious quality, with CEOs at the helms who maintain profit and growth at the cost of our health as their business strategy. The essential difference between the food peddlers and the infomongers is that the latter, in place of hunger, uses our aptitude for outrage and a need to know the truth to sell their product.
Thus, from the din of choices, here is a “Media Guide Pyramid”, whose goal is to instruct how to divide one’s time and attention to maximize enjoyment, perspective, accuracy, and sanity.
Tier 1: The Base
There is plenty of other material in the world that informs one’s worldview without barraging the viewer with numbers, casualties, and geopolitical microreactions. There are novels, long-form nonfiction books, history, science texts, YouTube and TED talks, poetry, theater, films, and documentaries. This should be the majority of your media diet to maintain sanity and stability. One does not need more than half of media consumption to be current events unless you’ve made it your living.
The truth is that there are narratives being pushed in every facet of modern life. Marketing companies sell you narratives about what will make you desirable, content, or worthy of respect. Politicians spin narratives on whom to blame and who can fix it. We tell our friends and loved ones the parts of our lives that we want them to hear for a myriad of reasons. The point is that all communication is storytelling, and our worldview is shaped by the stories we hear and tell. The news is a small but important facet of the jewel that is our shared human experience. It is important to remember that all of these peddlers have an agenda and a point of view, and only by recognizing their limitations and our own can we get a good grasp on the closest thing to objective truth.
Non-news media, for our purposes here, is everything but the formats designed to inform. This is, of course, a nebulous definition. Is John Oliver meant to inform or entertain? Does “Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me”, the NPR news quiz, count as news at all? The Food Guide Pyramid was never an exact science either, though. (If you counted the Bloomin’ Onion as a vegetable, you’re doing it wrong.) Regardless, if the main aim is not to inform the viewer of current events or entertain with news, it can be counted in the “non-news media” category.
The reason this category is such a large percentage of the pyramid is that one needs these types of narratives to be a well-rounded person. It’s the same reason liberal arts are still taught at the college level. We need cultural context and a deeper understanding of the who and why to make sense of the where, what, and when. Pixar’s Toy Story series probably tells more about American culture than the equivalent duration of viewing “Democracy Now!” or Fox News.
Media is an enormous umbrella term, but it can be broken down into the intention of its creators and the inherent qualities of each medium. Theater will tell you something very different than a novel, or a superhero movie, or an episode of Mad Men or Game of Thrones. However, all these things contribute to the type and quality of the information absorbed. Long story short, “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” And we all know how that ends.
I recommend 35 – 50% of media consumption be non-news media. In a three-hour consumption day, that is one hour to ninety minutes of content.
Tier 2 – Traditional Journalism
Centrist Media & Wire Services
For the first category, Centrist media is any news-gathering organization that maintains a commitment to non-partisan fact-based journalism. This includes NPR, BBC, Reuters, the AP, ABC News, Bloomberg and CNBC, and similar newswire services. It is a fact that some of these services lean left, are beholden to advertising, or are biased toward maintaining the political status quo by way of subsidisation by governmental organizations. However, when it comes to getting a basic understanding of the facts of what’s happening around the world, these services really are the best and are doing excellent reporting with the resources they have on the ground.
What is not counted in this category is Fox News, MSNBC, Democracy Now!, Breitbart or Drudge Report. They are further up the pyramid, due to the slant inherent in their coverage.
For newswire and centrist media services designed to keep the news consumer up to date with the facts of what’s happening around the world, I recommend 10% of a total media diet, or around twenty minutes a day for the average consumer.
Long-form In-depth National and Local Journalism
The newswire services are excellent for delivering the facts about what’s happening in the moment, but of course, staring through a telescope only gets the modern infophile so far. For broader and deeper perspectives, we turn to long-form in-depth journalism, provided by outlets such as the Economist, the Atlantic, the Wall Street Journal, the Hill, the New York Times, and a few other upstart online publications and podcasts doing great work. I also count in-depth reporting done by programs such as Frontline and 60 Minutes.
When it comes to local news, the traditional “if-it-bleeds-it-leads” nightly television broadcast suffers from a similar sensationalism as the national cycles (as well as a recent well-publicized consolidation), however the investigative reporting can be some of the best in the country. Local newspapers often break open stories weeks before the national reporters catch on and may have the resources to get into the details of a story that the larger outlets may not. And, of course, when it comes to Congressional representatives, local reporters are the first line of defense against bloat and corruption.
Due to the wider perspectives it invites, I recommend 20-25% of media intake be through long-form in-depth journalism. For a three-hour consumption day, that is around 30 – 45 minutes of content.
Tier 3 – Alternative Perspectives
International and Siloed
After laying a bedrock of facts and analysis with long- and short-form journalism, the responsible media consumer can begin to spice their intake with alternative sources.
For the first category, the consumer can break out of the national news cycle by exposing oneself to quality international journalism coverage. The BBC and Sky News straddle this category and “centrist media”, but outside them the options get interesting. Al-Jazeera is a fascinating source that can provide fresh perspectives on Middle Eastern politics from a Qatari perspective. RT often finds stories that the mainstream American media shies away from, though their coverage of Russian affairs is questionable. Out of Germany, Der Spiegel was referred to in the Economist as being better than “the rest of the German press combined.”
As anyone who has traveled abroad can tell you, another country’s news gives insight into its culture and what the citizens find valuable. Staying abreast of the geopolitical game can offer real insight into patterns of behavior by nation-states and multinational corporations.
In addition to international perspectives, follow specific topics of interest such as finance, tech, medical, lifestyle or art. These siloed categories will mix up your information stream and keep you informed about the things you enjoy learning about. If one has gaps in their media diet, doubling down in this category is usually most fulfilling.
For maintaining a healthy dose of international and topical coverage in one’s feed, 10% of your total consumption or more is best.
Alternative and “Outrage” Media
Though some believe they should be removed from the diet completely, there is a place for media sources whose main aim is to rile their viewers. There is nothing wrong with knowingly absorbing info from sources whose aim is to sell a certain perspective. What becomes problematic is when that source is your primary information stream, or you convince yourself that there is no bias in their coverage.
Sources such as MSNBC, Fox News, The Young Turks, HuffPost, Red State, Drudge Report, and Democracy Now! are not shy about their agenda. I will count the Late-Night comedians such as John Oliver, Trevor Noah, and Stephen Colbert in this category though I’m sure their defenders would claim the mantle of entertainers.
One of the bigger issues with these outlets is that they seem to be easier to co-opt by activist groups seeking to further their agenda, generally speaking. Paying extra close attention to the type of interviewees they book, familiarizing oneself with logical fallacies, and keeping one hand on the fact-checker is the way to to stay abreast of propaganda in this realm.
Alternative media should be no more than 5 to 10% of your total consumption, or ten to twenty minutes.
Tier 4 – Conspiracy and Propaganda
Infowars, Breitbart, BLM, Anonymous, Antifa
It’s unfortunate that it is nearly impossible to draw the line between activist movements and information sources that support these movements. In the age of all-thought, the laissez-faire of ideas seems to have as many stipulations and addendums as the so-called invisible hand of the market.
At the very least, getting so-called “extremist” points of view allows one to understand where the fringed ends of our American tapestry lay. Of course, when these movements lead to violence in any form, they must be condemned outright. (Yes, that includes punching Nazis).
Charlottesville and Charlotte have shown that stoking fires of social tension is not an isolated act. However, the conspiracy boards or fringe sites can be, as chock full of Russian trolls, astroturfers, and bots as they undoubtedly are, home to the information equivalent of early adopters in the tech hardware world: most of the time they’re wrong or are fanboys for their side, but occasionally they’ll be months or even years ahead of a story. There can be gold for those willing to dig through the mud.
It’s helpful to find out the positions and evidence put forth by truthers and conspiracy theorists to decide if you agree or disagree before ruling out the ideas from the outset (or, on the other hand, deciding their truth outright) merely because they’re fringe ideas.
When it comes to conspiracy, activist, and fringe sources, 0-5% of your information feed is plenty.
That’s a Lot to Deal With
Yeah, it is. You thought 21st century living would be all hoverboards and rad haircuts?
It may seem impossible to diversify your sources like this, but chances are you’re already getting a decent variety of streams and merely need to adjust the volume of a few. Try using a time-tracker app (QualityTime for Android; “Battery” section of settings in iOS) to clock how many minutes in total you spend on news and non-news media. From there tweak the frequency of emails or push notifications you receive from each source. It’s best to automate this so you don’t have to use your willpower to make a conscious choice each time.
The goal is to maximize the quality of information received without making it your job. Taking news breaks for a weekend, or even a week or more, can be one of the best things for one’s mental health and perspective.
Also, feel free to check my math on the various types of sources and their examples. This is absolutely a conversation and each source is a moving target.
The problems that the world faces today have scaled with our interconnectedness. The refugee crisis is a global challenge. North Korea is a global challenge. Economic crises in one corner of the world have ripple effects that reverberate through every market on the planet. As the web of interdependence grows, for better or worse, the complexity of the solutions needed to solve these challenges grows. This is not a time for simplistic thinking or knee-jerk reactions. This is a time for radical ideas implemented using powerful data-driven analytics by people who spend their lives studying these forces. Pundits and surface-level analysis have their place, however, down near the base of the pyramid, where the foundation of our knowledge and belief lie, we must gather the best information we can and attempt to synthesize it ourselves. We must think critically while understanding what each media source wants from us, not just what we get. Freedom is not free, and neither is freedom of the press. Those costs fall upon us.
The human mind is itself an echo chamber, and the color and content of information going in greatly affects the color and content coming out. Taking your media diet seriously and thinking critically about what is ingested is a vital part of being a citizen in this age. Ignorance is no longer an excuse. The information is out there; it is up to the media consumer to diversify his or her sources and make sense of them.