Journalists and Media Diets

Reporters (Photo credit: The Advocacy Project)

Last week I wrote about my experience as part of a panel I took part in at the University of Guelph-Humber. One other key idea that came up was the concept of a Media Diet.

A couple of students told me they were suffering the classic symptoms of information overload: they were overwhelmed by the amount of messages, TV programs, online articles and assignments they had to do each day, and worried that they wouldn’t be able to keep up. I told them how I tried to keep what I consume in balance, by keeping a media diet. Just as I take care to maintain a healthy food diet, I also make careful deliberate choices about the kinds of media I read, watch or listen to each day. I’m careful to seek out a broad, balanced selection in what I consume, while prioritizing the material I need to review to be successful in my job.

Being a journalist adds an extra layer of complexity to managing information overload. One of my fellow panelists was a newspaper reporter who covers the courts and Toronto City Hall. She spoke about how she feels the daily pressure to keep tabs on everything that happens on her beat. She’s on-call every evening, constantly checking her blackberry and Twitter in case there’s a breaking development that would require her to file a new story.

It is a beat reporter‘s job to stay on top of everything happening in his or her area of expertise. A beat reporter’s media diet should be focused on consuming the most relevant information and updates related to the topics they cover each day. But To avoid feeling overwhelmed, they need to give themselves permission to let other types of information slide. If your main job is to be the first-to-know about what’s going on in one area, it is okay to let yourself be the second, third, or fourth to know about other subject areas.

When I covered the Ontario Legislature, I’d often have people ask me “so what’s happening in the world?” “I don’t know,” I’d tell them “I can only tell you about the stories I’ve been working on about the Ontario government.” I simply didn’t have time to follow and summarize everything. As an anchor, I have the opposite experience: I have to follow the broad range of stories that air on my newscast each night. That has reduced my ability to follow particular stories as closely as I might have in the past.

You don’t need to know the latest Hollywood rumours, unless you are writing the gossip column. You don’t need to obsessively follow hi-tech blogs unless you file stories about hi-tech. You don’t need to read every political writer, unless you job requires you to work on Parliament Hill.

As Bill Hybel wrote in this book Surviving Information Overload “it’s the second mouse to reach the trap who gets the cheese.” It is important to be well-rounded as a journalist, in order to bring context and understanding to your work. I’m always on the look-out for summaries, or broad-discussions about various topics to help me keep up to speed with the latest developments across different topics and beats. But I rely on the reporters covering those other beats – I don’t try to compete with them.

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