Clippings: The news omnivore has a dilemma

When I was a junior in high school, I read Michael Pollan’s book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.” At the time, Vermont’s local food movement was growing and it seemed plausible that what and how we eat defines us in profound ways.
Fast forward to 2016. I was working at a weekly newspaper called The Sheet in Mammoth Lakes, Calif. I was the youngest person in my office by about 10 years. I was learning to lay out the newspaper. I asked my boss, publisher-owner Ted Carleton, for a list of things he thinks about when placing stories on the inside of the newspaper.
“Balance,” he said. “I guess I’m old fashioned that way.”
According to Ted, picking up a newspaper should offer someone the opportunity to read something that challenges them. If they see one impassioned letter to the editor, it’s the paper’s job to publish another right next to it espousing a different or opposing view.
A lot of my younger peers would argue that social media has allowed for freer exchange of information than newspapers or other traditional media outlets ever did. Voices traditionally stifled by societal institutions can now be heard.
However, a lot of older journalists I’ve worked with seem convinced that the internet has allowed people to expect that they can insulate themselves from experiences and people they disagree with. So often, on Facebook or Twitter, we talk passionately to no one in particular, and in response, we hear similar voices to our own echoed back.
The more we click on what we “like,” the more we get to interface with things we like. Companies like Facebook and Google stockpile information about what we like so they can help advertisers show us more of what we like. Everything is personalized and catered to you and what you want.
And, it’s free. According to Ted, this if anything, could spell the demise of newspapers. A collective disinterest in listening to each other. As a Millennial journalist, I’d like to think otherwise.
However, a January 2016 Pew Research Center Survey found that just 5 percent of U.S. adults who had learned about the presidential election in the previous week named print newspapers as their “most helpful” source — trailing social media and news websites, among other outlets. And we all know how that worked out. It didn’t end up spreading diverse, challenging stories among readers. Instead, people on all sides of the election were fed stories that served their existing bias.
Another line from “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” comes to mind:
“Cheapness and ignorance are mutually reinforcing. And it’s a short way from not knowing who’s at the other end of your food chain and not caring to the carelessness of both producers and consumers.”
If we care so much about what we consume as food, and acknowledge that consumers vote with their dollars, why don’t we apply that same argument to the way we consume information? If we are comfortable paying more for locally grown or organic produce from people we know than people we don’t, does the same logic apply to our consumption of media?
Working as a reporter in a small community is a good lesson in accountability. Sometimes errors or stories told with an unfair slant get into print. In my experience, if they do, you’ll probably hear about it in the produce section of the local grocery store, or while getting a cup of coffee, or once, in my case, at a belay ledge on a granite dome in Yosemite. They lead to more opportunities to listen and learn, and for humility.
So who would you trust to give you the whole story? Someone you can heckle at the grocery store, or someone you can only troll?
Of course, newspapers and magazines have to navigate relationships with advertisers who provide them with revenue, just as online news outlets do. And there are plenty of really good online media outlets that are changing the way we take in news. They are certainly worth our clicks.
In today’s age of pay-per-click advertising and information tracking, we vote with our mouse as much as with our wallet. Click-bait is like a McDonalds Big Mac. It’s practically free, and it caters to our desire to feel validated and comfortable. But does it really bring us closer to each other?
In all of the conversation about fake news and big media, I wonder about the responsibility of consumers. Are we complicit in making bad information or bad reporting profitable if we click on it and share it? If we don’t eat foods that contain GMOs, maybe we shouldn’t give our time to unethically sourced news.
I certainly use social media. My own guilty pleasure is scrolling through Instagram. This last quote from Michael Pollan made me think about why: “So you eat more and eat more quickly, hoping somehow to catch up to the original idea of a cheeseburger or French fry as it retreats over the horizon. And so it goes, bite after bite, until you feel not satisfied exactly, but simply, regrettably, full.”
I don’t yet have the decades of experience my mentors have, but I believe that good storytelling and good reporting and even good layout should push us to listen to voices we don’t want to hear. They should inspire us to put down our phones and look around us.
We spend so much of our lives looking at screens, and so little giving our attention to each other.
How can we tell good stories if we don’t consume them? For my part, I’m experimenting with limiting my intake of processed junk food.

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