#24: introducing a "needs-based approach" to news consumption, a checklist
and also how it could apply to vaccine hesitancy
Time Spent is a series of letters exploring how and why we should read the news, do care work and spend our time. The occasional tips and insights are all part of a book I’m writing about consuming the news.
Today’s news consumption tip is a checklist and I’ll take you through how I came up with it. It’s especially helpful if you’re currently navigating any sort of decision that kind of scares you (like getting the vaccine, or anything else related to caring for yourself or your loved ones).
In case you don’t scroll down, here’s what it looks like.
Basically, in the book I’m writing, I argue that we need to adopt a “needs-based approach” to news consumption if we’re going to survive the torrential ocean of content we’re all currently swimming in.
It can help us decide what to consume and what not to consume.
One of those needs is care—the need to care for ourselves and our loved ones. And it’s the easiest place to start being more intentional. Let’s walk through it.
An example: vaccine hesitancy
In the last several months, I’ve witnessed and had a number of conversations about vaccine hesitancy. Each time, I left feeling so strongly that navigating if, whether and how to get the vaccine is the most unprecedented news literacy opportunity of our time.
Why? Because it requires a needs-based approach. (More on this in a bit.)
Let’s zoom out. One of the most powerful ways to re-orient how we consume information is to ask ourselves why we do it at all. (I’ve been wondering this since I was 7.)
Here’s where I’ve landed: News is not necessarily what’s in the headlines. It’s certainly not what the dictionary says, which is “information that is new to someone” or “noteworthy, newly-received information about recent events.”
To me, it is much more specific. News is sound, verifiable, current information that allows us to make community-oriented, time-sensitive, needs-driven decisions.
For example, if, when and how to get the vaccine.
If you’ve been reading for a while, you know that I care a lot about being intentional about how we consume the news. The biggest pushback I receive almost universally is that it’s too much work and I don’t care about the news. Well, what if you have to care?
Let’s look at vaccine hesitancy as a case study for navigating news and the evolving definitions of news consumption that accompany that process.
The Decision To Be Made
Last week, Vox and Recode reported on data from the Delphi Group at Carnegie Mellon (a partnership with Facebook that has collected 18 million responses since April 2020) about how many adults are willing to get the vaccine.
Since the end of January, the number of those who are willing to get it or have gotten it has increased to 77%, but the % of those who are hesitant has remained constant at around 23% and if you look at specific demographic or regions broken down, that number can be higher. Here’s another look at similar data.
Among the top reasons for not getting vaccinated if offered: 45% are concerned about side effects and 40% are waiting to see if they are safe.
Now that availability has increased significantly, we are approaching a question of will at the finish line, which herd immunity is contingent upon.
So what’s the solution to the hesitancy? Well, there isn’t just one. As Derek Thompson argued in the The Atlantic a few weeks ago, it’s a multi-pronged approach:
One-third of American adults said this month that they don’t want the vaccine or are undecided about whether they’ll get one. That figure has declined in some polls. But it remains disconcertingly high among Republicans, young people, and certain minority populations. In pockets of vaccine hesitancy, the coronavirus could continue to spread, kill, mutate, and escape. That puts all of us at risk.
Last week, I called several doctors and researchers to ask how we could reverse vaccine hesitancy among the groups in which it was highest. They all told me that my initial question was too simplistic. “Vaccine hesitancy” isn’t one thing, they said. It is a constellation of motivations, insecurities, reasonable fears, and less reasonable conspiracy theories.
These can be addressed by a range of interventions and support systems by healthcare professional, communities, the government and the media, but personally, I’m most curious about how individuals, families and groups can navigate reasonable fears at the micro-level.
Nearly everyone I know knows someone, either directly or by 2 to 3 degrees, who doesn’t want to get the vaccine. And plenty of others who are generally planning to do so, but very nervous. It’s the nerves that are interesting to me, because I believe they dictate how we consume information, whether passively or actively.
Here’s my goal with this piece: I’m not telling anyone what they should do (though I do personally plan to get the vaccine and have encouraged my loved ones to informedly do the same). What I am advocating for is that some of us come out of this wild experience with more thoughtful news consumption skills. Vaccine hesitancy is simply a case study for how.
A Quick Overview of Needs-Based News Consumption
Here again is my basic definition of needs-based news:
Needs-based news: information that is new to me and helps me live my life, in particular, to make needs-driven decisions.
If you think back to the traditional newspaper, it was a bundle of factually verified information, curated (subjectively) by a room of editors who aimed to serve a community with information to help them make decisions on how to spend their time. This included everything from the weather, to business reports, to government information, to school district information, to entertainment.
Each section essentially strove to fill all sorts of needs. For example: the need for social connection (why we love to talk about sports and politics), entertainment, making health decisions, gaining power, changing policy, shopping, child-rearing, homemaking, making financial bets (investments), being seen and represented, and on and on.
(As a side note: this contextualizes how systemic hierarchies were similarly reflected in the lack of adequate information, or information manipulation doled out to communities deemed less than and/or why independent media sprung up to fill gaps along the way.)
All that said, whether or not those needs were adequately filled, what was nice about newspapers or daily news segments on broadcast media, was that they were bundled. It was a one-stop shop of information that was supposed to fill a lot of needs for a lot of people.
We now live in an unbundled media-system, which basically means that unless you are still reading the newspaper in print (and let’s be real, most of us aren’t, and most of us no longer trust the editors to know what to put in our bundles), you have to look for everything yourself. But do we actually look? Usually, no.
Bear with the analogy: most of us aren’t starting the day with a Page One meeting (when the editors of a paper decide what needs to be on the front page) for ourselves. We’re just randomly consuming things as they come at us on a million different feeds.
Still: our needs have not changed. We still need good information to help us to participate fully in life and community: health, financial, social, political and so forth. In fact, our needs may have even expanded, since we now live in a globalized world and are participating virtually in communities on a daily basis that far exceed the bounds of our physical geography.
When we do apply thoughtful intention to what we consume, it’s typically due to what I call a care-driven need: I need information that allows me to fulfill my family and/or community’s basic needs for care. Covid-19 skyrocketed these moments for us, though they’ve always been there. So, setting aside other needs for now, let’s focus on care.
Examples of care-driven needs driving news consumption:
I need health insurance
I need a job to pay the bills
I need to do my taxes
I need to know what the weather will be so I know how it will affect my business
I’m sick and I need to look up the symptoms
I need to decide whether to put my kid back in school in-person
I need to understand school policy because I’m being unfairly treated
I need to decide if and how to get a vaccine
I need to understand what legal protections are in place to protect me or a loved one from exploitation
In summary, I define care-driven news consumption as a search for information that allows us to fulfill our family and community’s basic needs for care, which begins with our most basic physical and mental needs for health and safety.
Many of us are actually pretty good at finding this information when urgent needs arise. But what about the rest of the time? And what if we’re just not good at it?
Here are a few ways to think about how to get better at it, using the vaccine as an example.
Why we need to identify our needs
Most motivation theory tells us that we are driven by different categories of needs, such as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Though they may not actually be hierarchical, here’s an image to familiarize yourself with some potential categories.
I love using this as a metaphor for news consumption. For example, I consumed a lot of Covid news in March and April 2020 (driven by safety needs), and then I basically stopped for a while. There was nothing more to do except socially distance and wait, so I turned my attention elsewhere, in large part to my community and I consumed a lot of news that helped me connect with people. For example: about Covid in parts of the world where I have friends and family, about the longstanding inequities that Covid intensely exposed and how I can act on them locally.
And eventually, I took on more and different care needs and sought news about how to work from home effectively and manage my mental and physical health in order to continue pursuing self-actualization goals I had put on pause in earlier months. As you know, I keep monthly logs of what information I consume, and month-on-month my logs mirrored these needs.
Another way to put it is that is that care-driven needs are driven by emotions: fear for safety might drive me to research resources, anger at injustice might drive me to research action, disgust might drive me to scroll through my feed and numb out, surprise might take me down a rabbit hole on the royal family, and so forth.
So: If I had to reverse engineer my implicit formula for news consumption, it looks like this.
Note: Most news literacy efforts focus on Step 4, which is important, but if you’re not motivated to take real action based on information, why would you spend time checking if a source is credible or not?
In the case of getting the covid vaccine in the Spring of 2021, here’s how I would answer those questions:
Need: to stay safe and feel connected to others (in person, as quickly as possible)
Emotion: fear (of getting the vaccine, because of unknown health risks)
Question(s): Why was the vaccine made so quickly? Is it safe for pregnancy or future pregnancy? What are the known risks? Does it matter which one I get?
Search for information: that’s credible (adhering to news literacy basics, like vetting sources) and potentially even curated by reliable news consumers/curators who have more time to spend keeping up with covid news than I do (for example: Emily Oster’s newsletter for parents navigating covid)
Why do this?
The process might seem laborious but I see it as my own little checklist manifesto.
📌 Here’s the key point: if I don’t ask myself 1-3 first, or find a way to be somewhat conscious about my needs and emotions, I’m going to be motivated by them anyway, and because of that I will be far more susceptible to carelessness, doom scrolling, information overload, burnout, and especially confirmation bias and misinformation.
For example, if I’m afraid of getting the vaccine, I might gravitate toward an article about women experiencing more side effects (real NYT headline) and if I don’t actually read the article but scroll past it, I’ve strengthened a potential bias. (Headlines are often incredibly annoying and dangerous because they seek to get clicks, and almost always destroy the nuance of the actual article, in my opinion.)
Or, if I’m skeptical about how and why the vaccines were funded and cynical about big pharma in general, I’m vulnerable to actual conspiracy theories floating around my feeds, which are wonderfully attuned to making sure I see the things I’m thinking about because filter bubbles!
In short, without owning my drivers consciously, my subconscious (very valid) needs might overrun my ability to rationally and empathetically navigate information.
📌 Also, if I can identify my care needs, I can articulate to other people what I need help with. Those have been some of the most effective conversations I’ve heard and participated in. “I am nervous about X, what should I read?” or “I want to do Y but I don’t have the resources, where can I find them?”
How to help our communities do the same
I find the above process an incredibly helpful first step in helping people around me make information decisions, because it automatically generates empathy for what might be driving them.
In fact, a review of the behavioral aspects of vaccine uptake from the Royal Society and the British academy points out that a narrow focus on misinformation disregards the fact that there are genuine knowledge voids out there about the vaccine (or people just can’t find the good information they need), which necessitates public dialogue, rather than just more one-way information.
And our own homes and social circles can be a great place for this type of public dialogue.
For example, a couple of months ago, I witnessed a conversation in my own family that gave me pause. My brother, who reads a lot of science and tends to be the "explainer" in our family, walked several family members through a series of questions they had about getting the vaccine. He debunked myths spread through their social circles, patiently calmed their fears, helped them evaluate the costs and benefits of getting versus not getting it and pointed to high-quality information sources. Most striking to me was that he didn’t tell anyone what they should do, and he was patient.
He simply created a space for them to vet their information against a trustworthy sounding board. Why? Because he intuitively understood their needs. That conversation, in fact, is what lead me to codify my own process.
At the end of the conversation, everyone just felt better, and more capable of taking the next step for themselves, which ranged from talking to their doctor about their fears of side effects, talking to friends who had gotten it successfully about where to go, reading about it online or signing up for their first dose with greater confidence.
Now, if you’re helping someone navigate misinformation, I know there’s an added layer of emotion that might make it harder to be patient. And if the “explainer” in your family is actively spreading misinformation, well, that’s another case to strengthen our own news consumption skills as a starting point (and also why misinformation needs a multi-pronged approach, which I’ll write about separately).
All in all, considering our needs is always a helpful place to start.
Basically, gaining a skill for the sake of democracy isn't very motivating, even if news literacy should be a life skill and organizations like the News Literacy Project have long offered very useful resources for students and adults alike. Facts aren’t enough to change our minds, and motivating individuals to get better at fact-finding and fact-checking is no small feat.
But I do see contextual, human experiences, often rooted in emotions (such as fear) or desires (such as safety or social reward), as a way to drive us to change our behavior and consumption habits.
In this sense, the vaccine rollout has been and continues to be an unprecedented opportunity to acquire meaningful news consumption skills for all of us.
A final, telling example: Back in 2015, Scientific American's Jennifer Ouellette wrote an almost ominous analysis of what it takes to change someone's mind, covering Brendan Nyhan's research on a study of attitudes about vaccines, which found that facts don’t matter in changing someone’s mind as much as identity does. She concluded that while beliefs are tied to personal identity rather than facts, it's important to acknowledge that identity changes over time and therefore, so do beliefs, even about vaccines, as evidenced by a 12-year attitude shift toward vaccinating her family that Gal Adam Spinrad chronicled in The Washington Post at the time.
In short: it was entirely driven by needs and emotions.
Regarding the Covid vaccine, the stakes and context are different, but the fear that many individuals are privately holding is very real. I’m hopeful that small, safe conversations rooted in an understanding of our own and others’ care-driven needs can help us navigate news and misinformation with our loved ones a little bit more kindly, quickly and effectively. It’s certainly not going to be the last time we are dealing with fear in the face of care.
Some resources on vaccine hesitancy & news literacy:
First Draft’s Vaccine Insights Hub, which offers reporting guidance on emerging health and vaccine misinformation, but also free 30-minute online workshops in multiple languages and time zones teaching people how to recognize misinformation and how to search for solid information — for example, how to Google well!
The Vaccine Confidence Project, which has been researching public sentiment around vaccines since 2010
Zeynep Tufekci on why you should take any vaccine
The News Literacy Project’s Peter Adams on WNPR about why disinformation preys our on values
Vivian Schiller in CJR about how to cover vaccine hesitation that has important lessons for all of us on how to respond to people we encounter who feel hesitant