Much has been made of the question about what it is to be an informed citizen. We’re instructed to “read widely,” “engage in debate”, “seek out new viewpoints,” etc. The message is clear: the more information you consume, the better informed you will be. On its face, this is reasonable and well-intentioned advice. The problem is that it’s also completely wrong. We’ve become so enamored with the availability of information that we’re forgetting to first judge the quality of our information. For years I practiced this kind of information consumption — particularly with the daily news — only to become burned out by an overload of unfiltered, inaccurate, biased, and ultimately low-quality information. As a result, I’ve decided to take a new approach: don’t read widely, read wisely.
Most of us want to be good consumers of information. We see ourselves as intelligent, well-read, critical thinkers, and we bring that perspective to our professional and social interactions. All day we are flooded with new information. We check our newsfeeds, listen to podcasts, read through social media, and watch cable news. Naturally, after consuming so much information, we consider ourselves to be well-informed. And yet, if pressed to go deeper on that article we read, or the study we heard about, few of us can do so. In truth, our knowledge about the world is often broad and shallow, leaving us unprepared to effectively engage on the things we care about.
The above is nothing new — information is not knowledge and most of us know that. But the modern information landscape nonetheless presses us to constantly consume what it has on offer. Cable news, with its never-ending “breaking” stories, demeans us as uninformed if we aren’t among the first to hear the latest updates. Social media bombards us with headlines, links, and commentary, all without any filter for accuracy or quality. And we do ourselves no favors when we interact with one another either — often casting judgmental glances when someone has failed to read an interesting story or follow an influential personality. But how much of this actually matters in our lives? How much contributes to the depth of our knowledge on the things that we care about?
If our goal is to be well-informed citizens, then our practice should be to first identify what we want to be well-informed about. If, for example, you care deeply about healthcare, then shouldn’t you be able to speak deeply about it too? Does passively reading headlines and short stories allow you to do that? Breadth has its merits, and we should all aim for at least a passing familiarity in the arts, science, economics, world affairs, politics, and so on, but breadth loses its meaning when not set in contrast to the things on which we have depth. It feels great to be able to say something about everything, but it feels even better to be able to say a lot about something.
For many years, my daily practice was to read the news in the morning, listen to the news on the way to work, check the headlines again in the middle of the day, browse commentary in the evening, and repeat again the next day. I was rarely out-of-touch when it came to current events. But for all that I knew about each day’s headlines, I knew very little about the issues behind them. Although it was nice to know that things were happening in the world, I would much rather have known why they were happening — and that meant having depth, not breadth. Unfortunately, the news media is a poor vehicle for depth. There is a reason why researchers, writers, and even journalists themselves do not study issues by reading headlines and watching commentary in 10-minute bursts. For depth, greater effort is required.
Ironically, the more engaged you are with the world around you, the harder it is to be informed about it. It’s tempting to want to know everything about everything, but doing so isn’t possible — the information generated in the world each day is far greater than any one person can consume and understand. This is why the earlier question of which things you really care about, and which of them truly affect your life, is so important. Prioritizing knowledge in one area necessarily requires de-prioritizing it in another. And for as much as the news media claims to offer consumers wide-ranging knowledge (on the condition that you watch, read, and click 24/7), the truth is that most news sources are primarily interested in your time, not in your edification.
Recognizing our knowledge deficit is a good step towards being truly well-informed citizens. The next step is determining how to correct the deficit. For me, this has meant setting my daily news habit aside and focusing instead on long-form journalism and original source materials. Although short news articles might make you feel engaged with what’s going on in the world, they are best employed as pointers to the things you care about. If an article stirs your passions, then follow up on it. Seek out more in-depth treatments of the same issue. Find the source materials that the headlines reference and go to them directly. Reading a book or academic paper on a topic you care about will provide you with more knowledge than reading short surface-level articles every day. The reason is that long-form writing does not pretend that complex issues can be distilled into 500-word articles or catchy headlines. Rather, long-form works are an acknowledgement that we live in a complicated world and to understand an issue you must explore it from all sides.
The counter argument to the above is that news articles are the only way to stay up-to-date on the things you care about. But how many of us actually need the day-by-day and minute-by-minute updates that the news feeds us? Certainly some events truly do deserve our immediate attention, but those are rare (despite the constant claims of “breaking news” on cable networks.) I have found that the daily news is best used as an appetizer — it’s something you spend a couple of minutes with before diving into the real work of engaging with the issues.
As with changing any habit, changing how we engage with information is hard work. I still find myself drawn into the media maelstrom and it can be a challenge to step back and think about what I am really getting out of the experience. I have even caught myself feeling guilty for reading a book rather than reading the news. And yet, each book I read feels like a victory over ignorance. Engaging on a deeper level on the things that matter to me has made me feel more fulfilled in my intellectual life, and even though I read far less daily news, I feel much better informed about what is going on in the world.