During the early fall of my freshman year, I made a mistake that many students make when first untethered from the nutritional gravity of their parent’s home: like Icarus, I flew too close to the sundae bar.
But after a week of ice cream with almost every meal, my body caught up with me. My stomach felt queasy all the time. I was grumpy, grouchy and gassy. It was a wakeup call; I knew my habits needed to change.
A similar problem afflicts our country. Over the course of a generation, our media environment has evolved from one of restriction to one of choice. Where the network news broadcast era was a wholesome three-course dinner, the internet age is a decadent buffet. Three channels have turned into thousands, and the bounded margins of print media have been swamped by the boundless scroll of the social media feed. This has created a problem: instead of sampling wisely from today’s almost endless news sources, Americans are gorging in increasingly narrow ways.
— PewResearch Internet (@pewinternet) November 7, 2017
In college, narrow eating habits lead to an upset stomach. In our body politic, narrow media consumption habits lead to partisanship, polarization and dysfunction.
In his book “Post-Broadcast Democracy,” Marcus Prior explains that “cable television and the internet have polarized American elections by providing their audience with more choice.” However, without balance, this irresponsible choice has calcified into partisan isolation. We have more choice than ever before, but less of an understanding of what to do with it.
Just as the college student’s stomachache prompts smarter eating habits, our current political indigestion should be a sign that Americans need to revamp their media diet. Luckily, we don’t have to start our efforts from scratch.
— PewResearch Journo (@pewjournalism) November 8, 2017
Following a good media diet is much like following a real diet. Nonpartisan sources serve as our fruits and vegetables. They provide unprocessed, factual nourishment and the core nutrients that allow us to be healthy, informed citizens. Partisan sources are the red meat. They’re enjoyable to consume and when taken in moderation can provide the energy for political participation—but indulging too often can cause blood pressure to skyrocket. Hyper-partisan sources are the sugary, buttery desserts. They satisfy the confirmation-bias sweet tooth, and therefore should be approached with caution and consumed infrequently.
But why not cut out partisan and hyper-partisan news sources completely? Why not take a vegan-style approach and consume only the most reputable of nonpartisan news sources? Instead of balance, why not aim for purity? The reality is that for many news consumers, purity is not sustainable (or even attainable). As any dietitian can tell you, most people can’t stick to a diet that’s too strict. Typical news consumers like a dose of entertainment or partisan grandstanding with their hard news; this might not be ideal, but any media diet that doesn’t include a bit of sugar and butter is doomed to fail. Sometimes, cookies make the kale go down.
Most of us watch what we eat. But we also need to watch what we view, read and listen to. If we consume media with intelligence and care, we might be able to ratchet down the tensions of polarization and deflate our respective media bubbles.
If we don’t, we might be in for a heck of a bellyache.