We live in an age of information overload. As a former media research analyst and media planner, I’m always fascinated by the power of data to inform and persuade. While I’ve never been a journalist myself, I’ve been fortunate to have worked in environments where journalistic integrity was a key tenet of the organization. Additionally, since much of my work has been on the advertising side of the “church and state” separation, I’ve been sensitized to the needs of the consumer. Thus, I was excited to be attending a few panels on how data and information affects the content we consume.
On Saturday, I attended a session entitled “The Information Diet”. The presenter, Clay Johnson, posited that much as food corporations have been consolidated, so have media corporations. In an age of overabundance, just as junk food can lead to obesity, junk information can lead to new forms of ignorance. This has become especially true in an era of increasingly biased media. These biased news organizations feed people’s need to feel affirmed, rather than providing accurate information.
Johnson offered the following tips for a healthy information diet:
1. Watch what you consume. This can be as simple as keeping a log, or as structured as using a app called Rescue Time which keeps track for you.
2. Schedule your use of media.
3. Be careful with advertising-based media.
4. Go local. In general, people are woefully unaware of their local city council persons, who have a large impact on people’s daily lives.
5. Be a producer, not a consumer. He encourages people to write 500 words at the beginning of every day.
On Sunday, I attended a panel discussion entitled “Journalism by #s: Data Will Change Nature of News.” In contrast to the previous one, this one was comprised mostly of journalists. The question was raised “Does data drive the story or does the story drive the data?” The answer, we were told, was: “Neither. Data makes the story better.”
The moderator, Emily Ramshaw, exclaimed “Data has become the topic du jour, it’s super sexy.” However, it’s not enough just to provide readers with a “data dump.” For them, the value lies in knowing what questions to ask about the data, and how to extract it. Additionally, anecdotal information adds personal interest to the data. After all, people have more of an impact on us than statistics.
At one point, an audience member asked “Who is interpreting site metrics, and how does that influence editorial meetings?” You could almost feel the tension and uneasiness in the air. One of the panelists answered that there was a sensitivity about letting site metrics affect the news. He also acknowledged that one of the goals of his company was to increase site traffic. Personally, for me, it raised a question: how much consumer influence is too much? How can media organizations balance giving the masses news and information they want to know, versus what they should know?
A common idea that ran through both sessions is that we’re now in an era when there is no shortage of information. As savvy media consumers, ultimately it’s up to us to decide what kind and how much media to consume. Johnson noted, “Our definition of ignorance has changed. It’s no longer a result of the lack of information, but rather the over-consumption of it.”