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Read Better: Five Steps to a More Balanced Media Diet

I had way too many opinions on celebrities and way too few on issues that directly affected me. It was time for a change.

I try to live in a highbrow universe, but the truth is that I could wax poetic about the salacious details in Whitney Houston’s autopsy report. I’m never more animated or articulate than when I debate the moral ills of Morgan Freeman’s romantic involvement with his step-granddaughter. (The man played God, for goodness sake!) Clearly, sometimes I read crap.

The average person spends about eight and a half hours per day looking at screens, whether through their computer, TV, tablet, or phone. On most days, I comfortably exceed that amount by more than half, reading dozens of blogs, watching television, and checking my social networks.

It wasn’t until I saw this popular TEDtalk that I began to rethink my habits. In it, Eli Pariser warns of the “filter bubble,” or the idea that web personalization is making humans miss more meaningful content. Continually searching for trashy subjects eventually yields a higher proportion trashy search results. This rule applies to your social networks, too. The more I click on my ex’s Facebook posts, the more I’d see him on my news feed (and the more I’d think about him). It’s a vicious cycle.

I also realized that I had way too many opinions on celebrities and way too few on issues that directly affected me, like health care or jobs. It was time for a change. Here are five ways I found more balance in my information diet:

1. Clean up RSS feeds and bookmarks. My Google Reader was the first to get a makeover. I cut out subscriptions that weren’t adding value to my life. TMZ got the axe when I realized that 95 percent of its coverage was of celebrity has-beens and other people I didn’t even know. (TMZ is only great in emergency situations, i.e. Whitney’s death.) Perez Hilton also had to go because the snark is often too egregious and mean-spirited. Both sites post too frequently for me to get through all of their content, so purging those feeds felt like a relief. If you don’t use an RSS, go through your bookmarks folder instead. Ask yourself: Do I trust this source? How much of my time does it take up? What do I get out of reading this content?

2. Let your social feeds lead you to the good stuff. Check out what your friends are reading on social networks. They’ll likely share stories that interest you. Many of my Facebook friends use the Washington Post Social Reader, so I’m often reading much more from my hometown newspaper because I’m clicking through their links. Also, add a few popular media feeds to your Facebook and Twitter so you’re always getting a good mix. I like to balance between straight news (CNN and NPR), smart culture writing (The Awl, Jezebel, The Believer), and a few special-interest sites with great writing (Colorlines, Grantland).

3. Set boundaries. You can get carried away on social networks, of course. You may see lots of news stories but only click on the one about Angelina Jolie’s engagement ring. Understandable—it’s a beautiful ring—but the real answer is to set time limits for yourself. I used to keep my Twitter feed open all day but now I only check in the morning and in the evening. Usually, mainstream news sources are updating their top stories in the morning while the evening stream is a bit more random. That means I feel a bit more informed about serious topics at the start of the day and let myself unwind at the end. Set rules for the amount of time you’re willing to spend monitoring a site. Wired has a helpful graphic about how to break up your nearly nine hours of screen time.

4. E-mail articles. If you’re like me, it’s easier for you to act on something if it’s in an e-mail. Instead of searching for ‘serious’ journalism, let it come to you. For $1.99 a month, I subscribe to The Best of Journalism, a newsletter of excellent long-form journalism curated by The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf. Each week, I get to read some of the best sports, science, international, and local reporting on the web. Some of the stories will make you laugh, others will make you tear up, like this recent selection about the rape of men during war. As extra incentive, I won’t move these messages from my inbox until I’ve read every story inside.

5. Embrace overlaps. For a pop culture junkie, #Kony2012 was the perfect storm of highbrow-lowbrow gossip. We got real discussions about Ugandan military policy, and we also got public masturbation. Overlaps like this can be the best way to get your trashy gossip fix while still weaning yourself off the most superficial stories. If you want to expand on your knowledge of celebrity breakups, start shifting to the next best thing: political scandals. If you’re dying to talk about Chris Brown’s latest collaboration with Rihanna, learning more about his actions in the context of domestic violence discourse will elevate the conversation.

Good luck! And happy reading.

Photo (cc) via Flickr user bravenewtraveler.

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