There's a difference between being highly-informed and well-informed, says Clay Johnson, author of the book The Information Diet. Belinda Alzner explains why Johnson believes we need to balance the information we read, view and hear and stop merely consuming the news equivalent of McDonald's.

I was outside the main conference hall at the AllStream Centre in Toronto, repeatedly refreshing my email. When nothing new showed up, I reached for my iPhone, opened up Tweetbot and made the familiar pull-down gesture to check for updates. Headlines about Louis C.K. (via Toronto Life), the Vancouver Canucks (The Globe and Mail) and manatees (Huffington Post Canada) popped to the top of my Twitter feed.

Across the room from me involved in a discussion with a delegate was Clay Johnson, author of The Information Diet, and the presenter of a thought-provoking keynote speech earlier that morning at mesh conference 2012.

I gulped, feeling guilty, as if sitting across the room from a fitness model with a large piece of chocolate cake in front of me. (In reality, it was an overly-tart half-eaten apple and a cup of black tea — not nearly as exciting as cake.)

In his address, Johnson awarded no niceties. Everyone is playing a part in the development of an information diet that is horribly unbalanced, he says – and that means both producers and consumers of news are to blame. Johnson played on a single analogy throughout his presentation that compared information consumption to that of food in America. Just as agriculture was industrialized and neatly packaged, so has been media.

“There’s a difference between being highly-informed and well-informed,” Johnson told the conference during his address, in response to what he sees as an overconsumption of cheap, popular and self-affirming information. It seems illogical at the surface, but this information overload can lead to ignorance, Johnson said.

He picked on AOL first. The company owns a web news mainstay in The Huffington Post, and, he says puts an emphasis on producing news on the cheap (the average cost of an article should be $84). A memo he presented showed four things that factor into AOL's editorial decision-making: Traffic potential, revenue/profit potential, turnaround time, and finally, editorial integrity. (That said, HuffPo does have a committment to quality original journalism as well, demonstrated by two major awards this year: A Canadian Association of Journalists Award for the Canadian edition, and, of course, its first Pulitzer south of the border.)

The problem is, cheap and popular news — like cheap and popular food — isn’t all that good for you, Johnson says. 


People don’t want the truth, Johnson says – they want to be told they’re right. This has led to an increase in media that caters to this desire in order to profit. His next target – which might not come as a surprise – was Fox News. The notorious right-wing news organization in the U.S. knows its audience and knows what they want to be told. Johnson referenced an AP article that was syndicated on Fox News’ website in a highly sensationalized manner, and only ran about a quarter of the length of the original article, distorting the original meaning.

It is important that news consumers have a balanced information diet that includes seeking news that speaks to a point of view that they might not normally have Johnson said. Ideally, we’ll be actively searching for “whole news” that includes source material that allows readers to make up their own minds about an issue. Such a diet includes an emphasis on local news. “You can’t do anything about Kim Kardashian’s marriage, but you can do something about childhood poverty,” Johnson said.

This all said, keeping with the diet analogy, though balance is necessary, so is moderation. And that moderation starts before you even get out of bed: “If you’re using your iPhone as your alarm clock, you’re doing it wrong,” Johnson said.  He asked how many mesh attendees use their phones as alarms. An astounding number of hands went up. He asked how many then check their email before they’re even out of bed. Many of the hands in the air stayed up, mine included.

Basically, we’re bombarding ourselves with information before we even begin our days. And an information overload isn’t good for productivity.

Johnson told us that one way to take action in getting your information consumption under control is to not only consume, but to produce. He says he writes 500 words every day before 8 a.m. Until those words are down, he doesn’t eat breakfast, go to the gym, or check his email. It’s his way of starting his way off in a productive manner and to contribute, rather than just consume.

Now, where does one buy an alarm clock these days? 

Check out this video, in which Johnson explains more about his Information Diet: