You are what you read: Why a balanced information diet matters

by | Dec 24, 2018 | Blog, News literacy, Research

This blog post is the third of a follow-up series on the News Co/Lab’s community news awareness surveys.

I’ve spent most of my career reading and writing about fitness and nutrition. Balance is key for both.

The best athletes — whether a powerlifter or runner — improve their performance by doing complementary exercises. The same goes for eating. A balanced diet includes natural ingredients of many colors and nutritional makeup. And ideally, you know where these foods came from.

Unfortunately though, people’s media diets are becoming less balanced. They’re getting the news from too few sources. And often those sources aren’t providing the most nutritious information.

Online news use has long since eclipsed radio and print, but it’s also gaining traction on TV news, Pew Research Center reported. Since 2016, the 18-point gap between the two was cut to just 7 percent. Americans today are heavily relying on technology — whether that’s from smart speakers or Twitter feeds — to conveniently deliver their news.

In a different survey, Pew researchers found two-thirds of Americans occasionally get news from social media, while a fifth turn to Facebook, Twitter, et al. often for their news fix.

But here’s the kicker: 57 percent of social media news consumers expect that information to be largely inaccurate.

You read that correctly. People who choose (and even prefer) to get news from social media are suspicious of it. That speaks volumes, certainly. But it’s not necessarily a bad thing, considering the state of misinformation on platforms like Facebook and Twitter.

After all, we want people to be discerning about where their news comes from. And they are mostly confident in their ability to detect “fake news,” according to a recent News Co/Lab and Center for Media Engagement survey. More than a quarter of news consumers in the three U.S. cities we surveyed are very confident in identifying fake news, while 60 percent reported being somewhat confident.

Even still, half of respondents in the three communities surveyed — Fresno, California, Macon, Georgia, and Kansas City, Missouri — said they had shared a news story online and later realized it was untrue. And 38 percent of the total 4,854 respondents could not correctly identify a fake headline.

Let that sink in. Nearly 90 percent of people think they can spot fake news. But 38 percent couldn’t. That’s a serious disconnect.

So is everyone taking measures to verify the news they consume and share? Definitely not, based on the amount of misinformation making the rounds on social platforms.

News consumers do have a few tricks up their sleeves, however. About 40 percent of survey respondents said they always check the accuracy of what they share. How? They look at who shared it and what evidence the story contains, yes. But they’re most likely to look at which news source the story came from. Those news consumers have a stable of sources and news platforms they believe to be credible and trustworthy.

But what happens when a person relies too heavily (or solely) on a single news outlet, or one platform? Their media diet is likely to become one of news junk food.

Today, we have a buffet of ways to consume news — thanks to technology. I can ask Alexa to deliver the day’s headlines. I can read an article my mom shared on Facebook. I can read the top story of the day on my smart watch. We are almost always connected to today’s news.

Technology should enable today’s news consumers to have a robust, fortifying information diet. But, it’s up to us to investigate where our news comes from and to build a menu of varied, balanced sources.

Vetting every tweet, article and video we come across can seem daunting. And certainly, the process becomes easier once you have established news sources you trust. We’re here to help. The News Co/Lab combed through established news literacy guides and outlined these four foundational questions. Unsure if a shared article or website is legitimate? Follow this guide.

  • Who made it? Is the author of the information reputable and trustworthy? Do they have credentials?
  • What is the evidence? Does the article include evidence? Is the evidence from an expert source? Is the evidence accepted by other experts in the field?
  • Why was this made? Is the purpose of the article to inform? Or is it to persuade, anger, sell, or entertain?
  • Is it missing context? Is this article the whole story? Or is it omitting some obvious information? Why?

Visit Shortcut Roundup: Quick guides to become media literate to learn more quick and easy ways to vet articles and build your cache of trusted sources.


Read other posts about our survey research here: