Information scanning concerns information acquisition from routine patterns of exposure to mediated and interpersonal sources. The essential idea is that even when individuals are not actively seeking information on a specific topic, routine use of media and interactions with other people yield exposures to information that affect knowledge, beliefs, and behavior. For many issues and behaviors, scanning may be far more frequent than active information seeking. While influence per scanned exposure may be less than for each instance of sought exposure, the cumulative effects of scanning may often be greater, given their greater volume.
Conceptualization of Information Scanning
Information scanning studies stand in juxtaposition to two related topics: information seeking and media effects. Models of information seeking typically assume that an individual has uncertainty (‘should I obtain a mammogram?’) and engages in active seeking of information to reduce or resolve that uncertainty. The information scanning perspective asserts that often uncertainty is not salient enough to drive active seeking, but an individual has enough foundational knowledge and interest to produce attention and retention when information flows by. Routine exposure to a magazine article, for example, may provide relevant information about benefits (or costs) of mammograms, or it may affect whether a woman thinks about the issue. It then may influence whether a woman asks her physician about getting a mammogram or is willing to comply with a recommendation that she obtain one.
Information scanning is also related to the media effects tradition. Media effects studies are concerned with the effects of particular content, such as portrayals of violence or unrealistic body images. Like media effects research, information scanning is concerned with what people learn about the world from their use of media and how that affects their behavior. However, scanning research often starts with a behavior, like getting a mammogram, and asks whether routine exposure to information sources affects it. Media effects research, in contrast, often starts with the content of media (e.g., the frequent portrayal of violence) and then considers what its effects might be. In addition, scanning research is not concerned solely with media effects, but considers the influence of information scanned from both mediated and interpersonal sources (such as friends, family, or doctors). Nevertheless, the distinction between the media element of scanning and other areas of media effects can be overstated – there is clearly overlap in both the basic questions addressed and the research methods used.
There is a literature directly related to information scanning, sometimes using other terms (Case 2002; Niederdeppe et al. in press.) Related concepts include incidental or mere exposure (Shapiro 1999), casual seeking (Johnson 1997), browsing (Dutta-Bergman 2004), passive information acquisition (Berger 2002), routine information acquisition (Griffin et al. 1999), and prior use of the term “information scanning” (Kosicki & McLeod 1990; Slater 1997).
The distinction between seeking and scanning is not identical to that between active and passive use of sources. While seeking is defined by activity, scanning may not be passive. Scanning includes reading newspaper articles because a headline catches a reader’s eye, staying tuned for the health minute on the local television news when a promo for it mentions a topic of interest, or asking a follow-up question to a friend who describes a colonoscopy. In each case there is an active decision to engage with a source. These activities are considered scanning because they occur in the context of routine exposure to sources, not because the individual is completely passive in the process.
The intrinsic nature of a source may not determine whether it is used for seeking or for scanning; It is not invariable that, for example, people will seek from the Internet and scan television news. Casual Internet surfing may produce scanned information acquisition, while planned television viewing of personally relevant programs (e.g., a public television documentary about cancer survival) would be classified as seeking.
Information-processing theories are also relevant to scanning. Those models differentiate high-effort and low-effort processing, with effortful processing seen as more likely to result in persuasion. This is one basis for the expectation that sought information may be more persuasive than scanned information. Nonetheless, these models recognize that learning and persuasion can result when processing effort is low. For example, information that results from scanning may gain credibility because of its link to a trusted media source, and might be absorbed without elaboration of counterarguments because it comes from the routine use of media.
Scanning can be detailed in terms of its breadth (the number of different sources from which information was acquired), depth (the richness of information gleaned), and frequency of exposure. A story with broad coverage might signal the topic’s importance and suggest substantial social support for the behavior; a story with depth might encourage careful balancing of benefits and costs; a story with high frequency over time might signal importance and social support for the behavior, and, because of its continuing availability, remain salient for people whenever they were making a decision. These distinctions are critical for efforts to assess the influence of information scanning on cognitions and behavior.
Research Questions and Methodological Issues
There are two fundamental research questions for information scanning research: “What influences whether people will gain relevant information from scanning behavior?” and “What effects does information gained from scanning have on behavior?” There are five types of hypotheses about the possible determinants of how much information on a particular topic comes from scanning. (1) Intrinsic characteristics of the topic: information about some topics and not others may be readily assimilated without effortful processing. Information that aspirin use by children is risky is easy to absorb, but detailed information about the alternative methods to help quitting smoking may not be absorbed without active seeking. (2) Sheer availability of information: information about some behaviors is much more likely to be available from sources that are routinely used. Information about mammograms and dieting to lose weight may appear in media and in personal conversations more often than information about genetic tests for rare diseases. (3) Enduring individual differences: education, gender, and other enduring personal characteristics may be associated with varying patterns of information use. Some people have styles of processing information which make them likely to attend to and retain information, across topics. (4) Topic-specific individual differences: some people bring substantial interests and background to particular issues. They have prior cognitions that make them likely to notice and engage with information as it flows by. (5) Access to and habitual use of sources: people who watch television news or read health magazines have more opportunities to scan information. People who have social links with many people have more opportunities to discuss a topic, particularly if the topic is relevant for the network.
There is a substantial conceptual basis for the expectation that information scanning will have effects on behavior. If one follows the logic of expectancy value theories, information learned from scanning may affect beliefs about the benefits and costs of behaviors. Scanning may affect the perception of injunctive norms (the level of social support for behaviors) or descriptive norms (perceived frequency of others’ behavior). Scanning may likewise influence self-efficacy if people see others successfully engaging in a behavior. Scanned exposure to media content may also affect the salience, or cognitive accessibility, of a topic. That information would then be more likely to be called on in making decisions. Agenda-setting theory also argues that repeated exposure to media content can make an issue more salient, and thus lead to higher salience for it in making decisions.
There is no guarantee that scanning will lead toward adoption of a behavior. Scanners may note only information consistent with a prior decision, may miss essential information, or may be exposed to such a welter of information that they are left more confused than well-informed. Still, it is reasonable to hypothesize that the intensive scanner will make a different decision than the non-scanner.
Conceptualization of scanning is relatively straightforward compared to its measurement. At least four issues are relevant to choosing appropriate measures of information scanning (or scanned information exposure). First, scanning suggests that routine media and interpersonal exposures provide information relevant to subsequent decisions about other behaviors. Then scanned information would need to be minimally encoded in memory and made accessible for recall at a later time. If assessment of individual scanning behavior relies on self-report, it will vary with individual ability to recall and articulate encoded information. Second, scanned information is specific to a particular decision. As such, general questions about exposure to overall sources (e.g., television) or to a broad topic (e.g., health) may not capture exposure to information relevant to a particular decision. Third, information can be scanned from multiple sources (mediated and personal – breadth); sources can offer detailed or superficial knowledge (depth); and sources can be scanned once or multiple times (frequency). If breadth, depth, and frequency of scanning make some difference in the effects, measures should differentiate these dimensions. Fourth, scanned exposure, by its nature, may not stand out in memory. It may be difficult for individuals to report specific sources and specific times, even though they may recall having generally heard about an issue from the media or from discussion with others.
Scanning measurement and analysis of effects has much in common with the measurement of media exposure for media effects studies. Three approaches dominate. (1) Measuring availability of specific content in heavily used media, and assuming that people are exposed to that content (both through direct exposure to these sources and through the diffusion of information through interpersonal sources). Variation in availability of content can be compared to variation in outcomes of interest across time or between geographical units. (2) Measurement of individual differences in exposure to known relevant sources (e.g., television, the Internet). Comparisons on outcomes can be made between individuals more or less likely to use those sources. (3) Measurement of individual differences in recall of exposure to specific information from specific sources. Individual differences in level of recall can be associated with matched outcome behaviors.
Only the third approach captures all of the requirements of the construct of scanning. However, it faces the difficult issue of the ability of individuals to recall and report scanning exposure in detail. In all three approaches, analyses of scanning effects depend on eliminating typical rival hypotheses concerning influences of potential confounders and the possibility of reverse causation. Scanning conceptualization, measurement, and effects analyses are in the early phases of their development.
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