What is an informed news consumer?

As I mentioned in my previous posts last week, I was on vacation for the first 10 days of the year – and it was a blast. However, it did come on the heels of the holidays, in which I travelled and spent time with family and friends. These travels led to a break in my routine of consuming news, and I was somewhat saddened to realize that I didn’t miss it very much.

Especially on my second vacation, when I was out of the country, I had little access to email, telephone, or even the news on television so was almost entirely uninformed about current events. Coming home, the tragedy in Arizona immediately arrested my attention, but the 1700 stories in my RSS news feed deterred me from catching up.

Which brings me to the central question: What does it mean to be an “informed” citizen? The sheer amount of information available may serve as a deterrent to any type of information seeking. Scholars have long known and accepted that people use information shortcuts and heuristics in their decision-making, but how do these shortcuts port over into even information consumption?

Some of the answers seem obvious. For example, I think the rise in people who are turning to social media (blogs, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) for information is the extension of a two-step flow in the Internet era, relying on opinion leaders to point us to what’s important. This same study demonstrates people are spending more time following the news than before, but from a wider variety of sources, as people sample from different outlets and platforms. Additionally, the rise in news grazing is also telling – people who skim headlines and leads to get an overview of news stories without reading everything.

Our society seems to be moving ever-more towards information specialists: even people who spend a lot of time with the news cannot be well-informed on every facet, but instead pick those areas most interesting to them. But at the same time, even including a rise in incidental news exposure on social media, the daunting nature of news consumption may also serve as a large deterrent. When promoting “news consumption” and the values of an “informed citizen,” we should rethink the traditional models that we so often fall back on and ask: what information really is most valuable for citizens to understand – and what’s the best way to find it?

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