How to Consume a Healthier News Diet (and Why It’s Critical)

On this weekend’s episode of Last Week Tonight, John Oliver explains that for many Americans, Facebook is their primary source of news. Then he puts this image on the screen:

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That stopped me in my tracks. Of course. Of course your views about the candidates lined up with the headlines you saw every day. Your news diet is just like a regular diet. If you eat lots of junk food, you will probably get fat.

And yes, before you retort that it’s the same as liberals getting their news from the Daily Show and Last Week Tonight, I agree. It’s the same thing (except funnier).

Conservative or liberal, we all need to put some thought into our news diet. For most of us that means adding some balance to the news sources we see in our Facebook or Twitter feeds. And we all need to add a healthy dose of skepticism to our news diets.

Balance Your News Diet

First, pick at least one well-known, traditional news source and like it on Facebook or follow it on Twitter. These are the grain of salt in your news diet. Here are a few suggestions:

  • For news reporting without opinion, follow the Associated Press (Facebook, Twitter).
  • For excellent reporting plus popular mainstream columnists, follow the New York Times (Facebook, Twitter) or the Washington Post (Facebook, Twitter). Or if you think those are too left-leaning, follow Fox News (Facebook, Twitter). (Just make sure to note whether you are reading reporting or opinion.)
  • If you just want to know what not to believe, follow a neutral fact-checking site like Snopes (Facebook, Twitter) or FactCheck.org (Facebook, Twitter).
  • Or if local news will keep you more interested, follow one of the major news sources from your city or state, like the Star Tribune for Minnesota (Facebook, Twitter).

Add Some Skepticism to Your News Diet

Equally important, add a healthy dose of skepticism to your news diet. While independent blogs do sometimes break sensational news (Drudge Report famously broke the Monica Lewinsky scandal, for example), the mainstream media will almost always pick up the story when they do.

If you wait a few days and the mainstream media doesn’t cover a sensational story you saw on a blog, it’s probably inaccurate. If an independent fact-checking website says the story is inaccurate, it’s probably inaccurate.

If something actually happened, there will be corroborating evidence for the mainstream media to independently confirm and therefore a story for the mainstream media to cover. Evidence doesn’t mean that lots of bloggers or podcasters are saying the same thing. It means there is a smoking gun or a piece of paper or an eyewitness. In 2016, it often means a photograph or a video that can be authenticated.

Sometimes there is no evidence, or the evidence is too well hidden. That’s why independent, alternative blogs do sometimes break news that the mainstream media misses. But again, it doesn’t happen very often. And when it does, the mainstream media eventually catches up.

If the news is real, it will almost always end up in the news. Sensational stories mean pageviews, and the mainstream media is just as motivated by pageviews as your favorite bloggers. So whatever the source, trust, but verify.

Maybe we won’t agree on anything in 2018 or 2020, either, but at least we can fuel our disagreements with accurate information instead of comedy routines and conspiracy theories.