A Nutrition Label for the News

By Cristina Quinn

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Mar. 14, 2012

news nutritional label
Dee-lish. (Clay Johnson)

EXTRA: We don't always consume the most whole-grain information. What's your biggest guilty-pleasure media "junk food"? Tell us in the comments, on Facebook or on Twitter.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — We take in a lot of information these days ... from the radio, television and every size screen imaginable.

Just look at the media diet of one patron at Out of Town News in Harvard Square: "I usually read the newspaper — a little old-fashioned — then I check my iPhone to see the breadth of news that’s out there, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, The Guardian and the London Times. I listen to the news on radio, but also Bloomberg Radio."

The media, like the food we consume, provides different tastes for different moods. But would you consider your media diet a balanced one? Are you getting the recommended daily dose of media nutrients? According to a 2009 study from the University of California San Diego, Americans consume an average of 12 hours of media a day.

But just as we're tempted to skip that apple and snarf some chips, with media, "The problem is that there is a difference between what people want and what they need," said theorist Clay Johnson.

 

The surprising similarities of consumption

Johnson is the author of "The Information Diet." He said Americans are not just getting heavy around the waist, we’re growing obese … information obese.

"We have industrialized agriculture, and that’s made companies have a fiduciary responsibility to create a cheap and popular food, and we’ve also industrialized media and that’s made it so that companies have to produce cheap and popular information," he said. "So we have to take personal responsibility and understand that this is not a media reform problem, this is not a political problem. This is a public health problem."

No one disputes how bad junk food is for us. Johnson has taken it one step further: junk information makes us stupid — and we need to use our time better.

Among Johnson's tactics: scheduling.

"Actually make an appointment for Facebook. Say OK, well, I’m going to spend 15 minutes on Facebook on Fridays from 5:00 p.m. to 5:15 p.m. And do the same thing with email and do the same thing with Netflix. Just because you can watch all 160 episodes of 'How I Met Your Mother' doesn’t mean you should," he said.


Getting guidance to make healthy choices

But what about measuring the good media calories and the bad ones. Is there a way to create some sort of nutrition label to make it easy on us?

"These days we obviously have way more information than we can ever read, and now the problem is finding the quality information in this world of complete entertainment, misinformation and good information all mixed together," said Matt Stempeck, a research assistant at the Center for Civic Media at the MIT Media Lab. "I like designing tools that help people find that needle in the haystack in a convenient way."

Stempeck and his team at the Media Lab are building the Media Meter, which is, he said, "an open platform to help people track and then visualize what their media diets look like."

The idea is that the Media Meter will show you what you’re getting in your daily media consumption and also what you’re missing in your media diet. Kind of like … a nutrition label.

japanese pizza
Maybe we shouldn't consume everything we want. (aaronolaf/Flickr)

> > Read: Stempeck: What if we had a nutrition label for the news?

To Stempeck, it just makes sense. "We've got nutritional labels for food. And when we choose to use them, we know what we’re putting into our body. But today, even though we consume more information than ever before, we have very little meta information with what we are putting into our brain."

However, there’s no empirical data out there, like the nutrition facts label, to tell us if what we are reading is in fact news versus opinion. So who makes that distinction?

"I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't let you read that."

Said Stempeck, "Basically, we’re going to ask computers to do it for us."

With some human assistance. For instance, if President Barack Obama visited a baseball stadium in Japan, a computer might have trouble figuring out whether that's sports, U.S. or world news.

Using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, Stempeck's team is asking people all over the world to read the opening paragraph of a news story and answer what category that news story falls under.  

With these responses, the Media Meter team will train a machine algorithm to categorize more nuanced stories automatically. And that’s when you and I decide whether we want to upload the Media Meter plug-in on our computers and use it to track our media diet.

When the spirit is willing but the mind is weak

But would any of us set aside the junk food and bother to use the Media Meter or read these so-called nutrition labels? Sean Cash,  associate professor of economics at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, knows about who pays attention to labels and who doesn't.

"The people who are willing to seek out information are often the people who are already most amenable to incorporating new information," he said. "On the food side, we find that it’s the people who are already eating healthier diets, more balanced diets who are most willing to use that information on the labels."

MIT Tech TV
Sean Cash and Clay Johnson talk about nutritional labels.


Which may mean people already getting a balanced media diet would be most likely to read media nutrition labels.
 
Content provider, heal thyself

And that leads to the supply side: those who produce your media "meals." Do content providers have a responsibility to pay attention to their own nutrition labels?

Stempeck liked the idea. "If news providers themselves are interested in getting a third-party look at what they’re producing and what they’re not producing, then they could change their behavior," he said. If the media changes its behavior, "All the consumers downstream who don’t particularly care to measure their media diet could still benefit. When a newspaper sees that it hasn’t looked at the continent of Africa in six months, everyone might benefit when that happens in the newsroom."

Which takes this food for thought to a healthier state of mind.

When you're not consuming healthy, whole-grain news like WGBH ... what's your favorite media "junk food"? Tell us in the comments, on Facebook or on Twitter.


Do we need a "whole news" movement? Clay Johnson thinks so.

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