Tired of the same old New Year’s resolutions?

Try a junk news cleanse.

By Heba Aly, IRIN News

Lose weight. Save money. Read more books.

If you’re bored of making the same commitments every year, here’s a new resolution to consider for 2018: Stop eating junk news.

I don’t mean fake news (the term was chosen by Collins Dictionary as the word of the year for 2017 because it has become so ubiquitous, but the guy who invented it now says it has become somewhat meaningless).

Fake news is intentionally fake, produced to make money or stir trouble and often circulated en masse by bots. “Junk news” — a term coined in the 1980s by communications Professor Carl Jensen — isn’t necessarily false, but is nonsense that distracts us from more important issues. It has always existed in the form of tabloids, sex gossip, and celebrity news.

(Robert Wallace/Flickr)

But today, junk news is more pervasive. Think of the superficial information we consume on social media (for example, the fact that Donald Trump mistyped the word ‘covfefe’) or the 24-hour news channels that repeat the same clips over and over to fill air time.

Meanwhile, the world is going to shit and we’re too busy sharing trash to pay attention. I remember waking up one morning in 2016 to CNN’s senior international correspondent reporting about an attack on Kim Kardashian — as though there were no more pressing global issues to cover.

But there are. And as head of a news organization dedicated to covering humanitarian crises, I bear witness to them everyday.

For a start, here are 10 crises that will shape our world this coming year. As you read this, there are more than 40 conflicts unfolding around the world, many of them utterly forgotten. The United Nations has appealed for an unprecedented $22.5 billion dollars to help a record 91 million people in need of aid.

Why should we care?

While we might once have been able to turn the other way and claim that ‘it’s not my problem’, our world is now so interconnected that crises somewhere else will land on our doorstep sooner or later.

And we can only solve such global interconnected crises — from conflicts to climate change, from refugee flows to pandemics — when we properly understand them. The alternative is that we develop dangerous public perceptions and implement ineffective international policies.

Quality journalism can help bridge this gap. But the last few decades have posed huge financial challenges for media organisations, which can no longer regularly afford to do the kind of in-depth reporting democracies depend on. Nonsense is cheaper and easier to produce, and it sells better.

In fact, accurate, in-depth reporting has arguably never been more threatened — by the rise in fake news; by the digital transformation that has broken the media business model; by attacks by the US president on credible news organisations. But simplistic news also perpetuates because we buy into it. We’ve gotten used to being entertained, rather than informed.

It’s time for a revolution.

Just as we’ve woken up to the dangers of junk food, we need to start asking ourselves if the news we consume is good for our minds.

So if there’s one resolution we should make in 2018, let it be this: Let’s stop eating junk news. Instead, let’s commit to consuming real, in-depth journalism that helps us be more informed and responsible global citizens.

This may not be easy — following through on New Year’s resolutions rarely is. Like junk food, junk news is more readily available, cheaper, and yummier, at least in the short term. But proper journalism does exist — I’m talking about journalism that challenges our pre-conceived notions; journalism that gives us more than one side to a story; journalism that teaches us something about the world in which we live. But it is our responsibility to seek it out, consume it, and where possible, support its production.

By doing so, we will not only be looking after ourselves a little bit better; we’ll also help improve the state of the world. As global citizens, if we are informed, we can take part in the decisions that shape our world; we can put pressure on our governments to act; and we can mobilize. Only when we properly understand our complex world can we begin to change it for the better.

And I promise you, when you’ve eaten at a Michelin star restaurant, junk food just doesn’t taste as good anymore.


Heba Aly is director of www.irinnews.org, a specialist news site covering humanitarian crises. This blog is an adapted version of her TEDx Talk. Watch it here.