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Renée Schafer Horton: We went on a 'media diet' and here's what we learned
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Renée Schafer Horton: We went on a 'media diet' and here's what we learned

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How might your life change if you gave up cable news, reading articles pushed by social media algorithms, abandoned talk radio and, in general, limited your news intake for two months?

You just might be happier, more likely to question your assumptions and less likely to yell at your TV or the Letters to the Editor page.

At least that was the general consensus of people who participated in an experiment I proposed two months ago.

A few weeks after citizens protested President Biden’s election by breaking into the U.S. Capitol, destroying property and threatening lawmakers, I asked my readers to join me on a media diet.

This idea came from my belief that one of the primary causes of polarization is disagreement over what constitutes fact. A man who thinks he’s saving democracy by howling like a banshee in the seat of American government is not someone in full command of reality. He is, instead, in full thrall of QAnon conspiracies – and he wasn’t alone.

The conspiracies fomenting the riot were not promoted by local TV stations or newspapers. But they were rampant on social media, “news” websites and talked about ad nauseam on cable TV.

So, I proposed a six-week media diet: no national newspapers, talk radio or news articles shared on social media, and no CNN, MSNBC or FOX news. Participants could read their local newspapers and watch a nightly newscast from ABC, NBC, CBS or PBS.

I received nearly two dozen emails from readers asking about the diet, the majority identifying as liberal. Only four conservatives contacted me, and three only to complain in ALL CAPS that my proposal constituted censorship. The fourth was exceedingly polite and agreed to participate.

In the end, eight brave souls took up the challenge, including two from outside Arizona. Six joined me this past weekend via Zoom to talk about the experience. There were three men and four women, including me, all older than 45 and the political breakdown was primarily moderate-to-left. These were our primary lessons:

1. Polarization only benefits those in power, including cable media giants, newspaper conglomerates, social-media moguls and just about every politician. It does not benefit you and me.

2. You do not need to be plugged into news 24-7 to be informed.

3. The less you are plugged in, the less angry you are and more willing to see people disagreeing with you as human, not evil.

4. Journalism has allowed editorializing into news reporting and this causes distrust of media.

Vicki said the diet taught her a lot about herself.

“I saw what articles I was most tempted to break the news fast for, like Bruce Springsteen’s drunk driving – I couldn’t resist that,” she said. “On the other hand, because I was consciously limiting my news consumption, it made reading my daily newspaper more valuable to me. I realized I often just skimmed the Star, but the fast made it more precious and I read it more carefully.”

Ken, the conservative voice in the group, found that abstaining from his only news source – RealClearPolitics.com – for the past six weeks gave him extra time to pray.

“I just started praying for President Biden, Vice President Harris, all the leaders, as well as people I know who are sick,” he said. “It’s so easy to read something and think, ‘How can they think that!’ but stepping back helped me focus on being quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to anger.”

John paused his daily New York Times for two months to take the challenge and discovered it “was kind of a relief.”

“It was like, ‘Why didn’t I do this four years ago?’ I realized it had been so stressful,” he said.

Anita agreed.

“I felt far less angry during this diet. Before, I would watch TV and find myself yelling, ‘How could they be so stupid?!’”

Everyone complained that most legacy journalism has abandoned the tradition of reporting “just the facts.” My brother-in-law David participated from Dallas and said he got hooked on PBS for this very reason.

“I don’t 100% trust anything, I always have in the back of my mind, are the reporters leaning one way or the other,” he explained. “But with PBS, you could see they were trying to get as full a picture as possible and then let viewers make their own decisions. The reporters are very knowledgeable but nothing is shoved down your throat. It’s just news without the dramatic spin.”

More than one participant complained about bias they found in Associated Press stories. It isn’t egregious, but it is there – “angry mob” instead of just “mob”; “she complained” instead of just “she said”; this source interviewed and that one ignored.

Letting opinion slip into the straight news reporting of who, what, when, where and why distresses me the most. Former President Donald Trump’s claims of “fake news” wouldn’t have had near the siren call if readers hadn’t already noted news stories slanting left or right.

This is a problem newsrooms and journalism schools should be addressing if they have any hope of regaining readers’ trust – and their eyeballs.

Half the participants wondered if they felt less angry not because of the diet, but because we have a new president. As Anita said, “After the election, a lot of the inflammatory stuff just died down. It was quieter.”

I think part of that is true. But it is also true that when I’m not focused on national news eight hours a day, I’m more tuned into what is happening locally. And locally, we’re doing some great things. The City Council listened to residents and put a hold on a zoo expansion that would destroy one of our few urban bodies of water, Pima County is distributing hundreds of vaccines daily and neighbors who stopped talking last year seem to be mending fences. Maybe there’s hope for 2021 after all.

Renée Schafer Horton is a regular Star contributor. Reach her at rshorton08@gmail.com.


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