Would nutrition labels work for news?

Matt Stempeck, research assistant at the MIT Center for Civic Media, recently asked the question: “What If We Had a Nutrition Label For News”?

His call for feedback prompted a response from Eric Newton, senior advisor to the president at Knight Foundation, who equates the fundamental nutritional elements of food directly to their counterparts in news.

Newton wrote:

Congratulations for taking on this fantastic topic. Anyone who can break down and communicate the nutritional value of news will be an American hero.

As you note, the idea of a food label for news has been kicking around for a long time. I first started talking about it nearly 15 years ago with some other folks at the Newseum in various programs we had in the broadcast studios there. I got some bits on the record five years ago in the book Mega Media, and most recently I wrote “Junk-food news turning us into fat-heads” in the Miami Herald.

We’ve known for ages that words are food for the mind. The devil is in the details. Every previous effort I’ve seen has failed to properly unwind the metaphor. Listing the various failures may not be as helpful as talking aspirationally about the real goal.

What we really need is a food label not so much on each news outlet but on each news story. (ie, Marissa Mayer’s point at Google about the new unit of organization of news being the story, not the outlet).

Since we can reach general agreement that great journalism is the fair, accurate, contextual search for truth, it seems sufficient to me to evaluate it on that basis. It seems doable to hunt down the fairness, facts, context and fundamental truthfulness within each individual story, just as you can the carbohydrates, protein, vitamins and calories in food.

And it seems equally doable to flip the formula – since bad stuff is the opposite of the good – and you get unfairness, bias, inaccuracy, contextual distortion, sensationalism and untruths. Those would be the sugars, fats, sodium and additives that make food really, really dangerous.

Breaking it down in a simple way like that would do for news nutrition what advocates have been saying must be done for food nutrition: it would make it something the consumer can relate to. The idea of using new graphic forms to explain this is brilliant. I say that because a certain amount of bad stuff in news is unavoidable and likely OK, just as a certain amount of fat, sugar, salt and chemicals is OK. It’s when the proportions are wrong that you are in big trouble.

One thing I can’t get my head around is how or why you would do a food label for a whole news organization, because a news organization is an entire grocery store, more of a brand name than something that is ever consumed in its entirety. The carrots might be just great in the New York Times, but the beets may suck. In my opinion, you might want to rate news organizations the way grocery stores are rated. How much is organic, is there good variety, it is fresh, value for money, are the really horrible brands featured, etc.

Knight Chair Michael Pollan was good to point out that while we have had food labeling for a long time, we also have allowed the companies a free hand in giant colorful letters on the front of the boxes to make substances that are not food at all appear to be food, since during President Nixon’s administration they dropped the rule saying artificial stuff must use that word.

A last point on the issue of information by itself as a method of changing behavior. It isn’t.

Facts alone, while necessary, are not enough. You can’t just inform, you have to find a way to engage. Like Chip and Dan Heath say in their book Switch: How to Change Things When Charge is Hard, we are all riders on elephants, the riders full of information and the elephants full of emotion. When they disagree, which way does the elephant go? The secret is to find ways to reach the elephant, such as they did in a successful billboard campaign showing how much fat was in whole milk by by using a giant glass of milk and an equals sign and five (count ’em, five) strips of bacon.

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