Is Your News Diet a Healthy One?
Psychology and moral philosophy both argue for working on our news literacy.
Posted Jan 14, 2020
Everyone has an opinion about journalism and what journalists should be doing. The media landscape is filled with criticism and commentary about whether journalists are being responsible in how they do their work. And we all should expect journalists to meet their moral obligations to pursue and present the news impartially and to minimize the harm involved in doing so where possible.
But we also need to turn that critical eye on ourselves as media audience members. Do we have any moral obligations as media consumers? Yes, we do. There are compelling voices from both psychology and philosophy that argue we should be working on the relationship we have with media. The implication from both fields is clear: We have a duty to think about our “news diet,” to get out of our own bubbles and try to understand why journalists do what they do, rather than fixate on whether we agree with them or not.
First, let’s take psychology. Researchers over the decades have documented our cognitive filters that are great at saving us from information overload, but that also shape our attention and media habits in unfortunate ways. They prioritize emotional triggers over deliberation. They screen out information that may make us uncomfortable or challenge our beliefs. They invite us to practice news avoidance. But we are often oblivious to these dynamics.
Reading and watching good journalism regularly can also cultivate the habit of contemplation, of considering oneself in relation to the world. That habit of contemplation can, in turn, exercise the muscle of curiosity, leading us to ask more questions about what we know and do not know. Psychologists have long suggested this cultivation of contemplation and curiosity is how we develop the ability of empathy.
People who have little sense of curiosity about the world—what psychologists call “need for cognition” or NFC—tend to rely more on stereotypes when judging other people (Petty et al., 2009). College students with high levels of need for cognition have expressed stronger life-satisfaction attitudes. And high NFC is correlated with emotional stability, self-esteem, and persistence, as well as the personality traits of conscientiousness and openness to new experience (Fleischhauer et al., 2009).
People with low NFC tend to exhibit higher levels of anxiety and neuroticism (Sadowski & Cogburn, 1997). All this research has led one observer to call curiosity “a kind of superpower” (Epstein, 2019). Other cognitive research has documented the value of “active open-mindedness”—when you regularly test your own views against new information, instead of always hunting for ways to confirm what you already believe.
And philosophers since Aristotle have argued that we have a duty of self-improvement, of freeing ourselves from ignorance. When we have good media habits, we’re able to make more sense of the world and what the news media are doing in their efforts to portray it. We are able to make savvier judgments about what we watch and what we read.
Aristotle argues that ignorance is a common feature in the creation of vice; that one of the best ways to avoid bad or negative actions is to minimize our ignorance about what we are doing, how we are doing it, and why. Ignorance can literally handicap us, leading us to make wrong decisions or judgments and ending up with consequences we had not considered. “Everything that is done by reason of ignorance is not voluntary; it is only what produces pain and regret that is involuntary,” he writes in his Nicomachean Ethics.
W.D. Ross, whose work in the 1920s helps us think about how we might prioritize various duties, lists “self-improvement” as one of the seven central duties that all of us have. Enlightenment giant Immanuel Kant, too, writes about our duty, when possible, to strive to perfect our natural and moral capacities. Summarizing Kant, one philosopher said, “Each human being ought to strive after [perfection] in order to contribute to the improvement of humanity” (Bauer, 2018, p. 40). Bauer, a moral philosopher, continues:
In Kant’s theory of personality, self-respect—respect toward one’s rationality, autonomy, and the self-imposed moral law—is most important. Self-respect [Selbstachtung] is not to be confused with self-love or self-indulgence. It is positive self-perception that goes hand-in-hand with the experience of mastering one’s inclinations and desires (p. 54).
In today’s chaotic media landscape, a duty of self-improvement means thinking about our news “diet” and cultivating healthy habits. It means we have a moral responsibility to work on our media literacy—and, more specifically, our literacy about journalism content. It means cultivating the habit of paying attention to stories that are not merely entertaining. It means resisting the temptation in our polarized society to dismiss anything we disagree with as “biased” and becoming more aware of our own cognitive biases. It means we must understand the differences between partisan media outlets and mainstream journalism organizations that strive for professionalism.
Paul Glader, writing for Forbes, offered his list of 10 reputable mainstream news outlets. It’s a good start. “While some may criticize mainstream media outlets for a variety of sins, top outlets such as The Washington Post, the New York Times, NBC News and the New Republic have fired journalists for… ethics violations,” Glader writes (2017). For most partisan-driven media sites on both ends of the political spectrum, that doesn’t happen. Younger generations especially need to understand the editorial “voices” of the above-mentioned outlets, and most other mainstream news organizations remain distinct from their newsgathering staff, rather than presuming that both kinds of content come from the same people.
Better news diets and more media literacy would go a long way in helping us all flourish.
Bauer, K. (2018). Cognitive self-enhancement as a duty to oneself: A Kantian perspective. The
Southern Journal of Philosophy 56 (1), 36-58.
Fleischhauer, M.; Enge, S.; Brocke, B.; Ullrich, J.; Strobel, A.; Strobel, A. (2009). Same or
Different? Clarifying the Relationship of Need for Cognition to Personality and Intelligence. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 36 (1): 82–96.
Glader, P. (2017, February 1). 10 journalism brands where you find real facts rather than alternative facts. Forbes. Available: https://www.forbes.com/sites/berlinschoolofcreativeleadership/2017/02/01/10-journalism-brands-where-you-will-find-real-facts-rather-than-alternative-facts/#22cab03fe9b5
Petty, Richard E.; Briñol, P; Loersch, C.; McCaslin, M.J. (2009). The Need for Cognition. In
Leary, Mark R.; Hoyle, Rick H. (eds.), Handbook of Individual Differences in Social behavior. New York/London: The Guilford Press. pp. 318–329.
Sadowski, Cyril J.; Cogburn, Helen E. (1997). Need for Cognition in the Big-Five Factor Structure. The Journal of Psychology 131 (3): 307–312.