Of the numerous functions the news media perform in contemporary society, perhaps none is so basic as their role in distributing information. In many democratic theories, broad and equitable distribution of timely news is viewed as necessary for sound public opinion and popular decision-making. Students of journalism, mass communication, and politics have consequently invested considerable effort in studying the ways people process news stories and how much information – and what types of information – they retain as a result.
While democratic concerns animate much of the research in the area, however, its significance extends well beyond this particular normative framework. Because news processing and retention are centrally implicated in mass learning and persuasion, they are critical in any social system, no matter the governing ideology of the state. Learning from the media is often conceptualized as an essential first step in many models of media effects.
In seeking to understand the ways people learn from the news, most studies adopt an information-processing perspective. By the “processing” of news, researchers generally refer to an interrelated series of cognitive and behavioral phenomena, including exposure to news stories, paying attention, encoding information, comprehending and interpreting its meaning, rehearsing or elaborating content, and storing some information relevant to the stories in memory. By “retention,” researchers refer to the ability of audience members to keep stored memories of the news over time, and to retrieve that information when necessary.
Studies of news processing and retention have employed a variety of methods, mainly relying upon either general population surveys or laboratory experiments. The former allow researchers to estimate basic relationships between self-reported news exposure, audience characteristics, and knowledge of the news, and to make generalizations about patterns in news retention among heterogeneous mass audiences. When coupled with assessments of news coverage (e.g., through content analysis), survey data also allow comparative assessments of learning about different types of stories. However, surveys are of limited value in examining cognitive processes. For examining the way people interpret and process news, then, researchers typically turn to experimental methods involving manipulation of exposure to stories that can be systematically varied along dimensions of theoretical interest, such as narrative structure, print, audio or visual characteristics, pacing, message complexity, and the like. Laboratory studies also permit examination of message processing, sometimes employing physiological as well as self-report measures, and memory for particular story elements.
Conceptual And Measurement Issues
Sound measurement of exposure and retention is central to the study of learning from the news. Surveys depend on self-reports and thus face a variety of significant measurement challenges, which are especially pronounced with respect to assessing news exposure. Use of many mass media, particularly television, may be a low-salience affair and thus difficult for people to estimate and report. The exposure experience may also vary considerably across different media – newspapers, television, radio, or the Internet – rendering comparisons across outlets problematic. For example, relying on simple self-reports of exposure frequency, such as hours per day or days per week spent using various media, may underestimate the learning benefits of television news relative to newspaper reading, since the latter typically demands higher levels of attention. Taking into account both self-reported exposure and attention paid to news may thus produce “fairer” comparisons and appears to explain more variance in news knowledge (Chaffee & Schleuder 1986). Refinements in standard questions about news media exposure and attention have aided survey researchers considerably, although most acknowledge that surveys are limited by necessity to rather gross and indirect measures of news media use. One of the principal values of experimental methods, despite the potential loss of sample generalizability, is the reliable manipulation of exposure to particular news stories and some degree of control over the attention paid to those stories.
When researchers turn to measuring news retention, several options are available in either survey or experimental contexts. “Recognition” measures expose people to parts of a news story, for example a visual frame from a broadcast news item, asking for a report of whether they remember having seen it. “Free recall” measures simply ask for open-ended reports of information that was contained in a story, while “cued recall” offers some content-related stimuli to assist in information retrieval from memory.
Other measures aim to assess comprehension of a message by asking not for retrieval of discrete memories, but instead about the gist or meaning of a story. Because the interview or questionnaire is generally a verbal exchange, measures are most often aimed at retrieval of verbal information, though recognition measures incorporate visual memories as well. The particular manner in which knowledge is assessed is of critical importance when drawing inferences about learning from the news. In experimental studies, for instance, television news exposure produces different effects on free recall, cued recall, and recognition outcomes. Verbal knowledge tests may privilege certain groups, for example those who are better educated. Conventional approaches to measuring public affairs knowledge may also fail to reflect outcomes of online processing of news, whereby information processing results in updating evaluations and opinions, after which the information itself is discarded (Graber 2001).
Research indicates, as one would expect, that the amount of coverage given to a particular story in the news predicts the rate at which audience members are able to recognize and recall the story (Gunter 1987). However, the impact of news coverage varies considerably across different types of media outlets, across various kinds of news, and among different audience members. Price and Czilli (1996) found, for example, that domestic news is better remembered than foreign news among US audiences, and that stories involving identifiable persons (such as celebrities) are better remembered than other stories, particularly for those who are low in prior knowledge of public affairs. In general, studies have focused on four main sets of factors that influence news processing and retention: audience characteristics, differences among various news media; specific message features, and characteristics of news stories.
A number of studies have examined characteristics of audience members that facilitate or impede learning and retention of news. Among the strongest facilitators is pre-existing knowledge of general public affairs, which has been shown to be a consistent predictor of awareness and recall of specific news stories, indeed often a stronger predictor than news media exposure (Price & Zaller 1993). In some cases, survey researchers have failed to find any news media effects on learning after prior political knowledge and other variables are controlled. Knowledgeable people tend to be more engaged and attentive news consumers than their peers, and also have more developed schemas for processing information contained in the news. There is some evidence that general knowledge may interact with the nature of news stories in predicting recall as well. Less knowledgeable members of the audience appear to be more strongly affected than their more knowledgeable peers by stories receiving large amounts of coverage, personality-based stories, and stories that have a domestic rather than international focus.
Learning from the news is associated with motivated and active processing of media content. Research in the “uses and gratifications” tradition finds that people who use the news for surveillance or informational purposes have higher levels of political knowledge and news recall than do those who report mainly entertainment-related or boredom-reduction uses of the news media. Surveillance appears to affect knowledge through increased attention to and elaboration of news content (Eveland 2001). However, motivated media use, while it facilitates learning, is not a necessary condition: There is also evidence for incidental learning from the news.
Because surveillance motivations and pre-existing knowledge tend to be higher among people of higher socio-economic status, “knowledge gaps” in the population are common. The knowledge-gap hypothesis, proposed in 1970 by Tichenor and colleagues, submits that when new information enters a social system, those who are advantaged by socioeconomic status take up that information at a faster rate than those of lower status, widening gaps in knowledge. Measured relationships between media use and knowledge are consequently stronger for people with more education, and the knowledge gap appears most pronounced for stories disseminated through print media and the Internet. Knowledge gap effects, though common, may be diminished when those of lower socio-economic status are interested and motivated to follow the news (Kwak 1999) or when information is distributed primarily through more accessible channels such as television news.
Differences Among Media
A number of studies have compared newspapers and television as sources of public affairs knowledge. A sizable body of survey research, mostly conducted during political campaigns, indicates that newspaper reading is the superior predictor, with television news exposure appearing to have little predictive value (e.g., Robinson & Levy 1986). There are, however, some exceptions to this pattern. In particular, it appears that television news – aside from local news, which typically does not seem to contribute much to knowledge – performs on a par with newspapers when attention to news is considered along with exposure. Differences in the effect of newspaper and TV exposure are sometimes less evident in experimental research, but a series of experiments by Furnham and Gunter (e.g., 1989) find better recall following exposure to print than audiovisual channels.
With the growth of the Internet, researchers have undertaken comparisons of learning from conventional print newspapers and online news. The research is somewhat equivocal, but several experimental studies suggest that news recognition and recall are higher for print than for online news (Tewksbury & Althaus 2000), and survey research suggests only a minor role for Internet news use in political learning.
Beyond the mass media, interpersonal channels of information dissemination have also been examined. Discussing the news appears to improve learning outcomes, with surveys finding that self-reported frequency of conversation predicts knowledge about as well as or better than reported news media exposure. Studies of the interactive effects of media use and discussion have produced mixed effects, with some suggesting interpersonal discussion might weaken the effects of media use on knowledge, and others finding that frequent discussion enhances learning from news media (Scheufele 2002).
A number of studies of television news have demonstrated that complex production formats and complicated narratives may interfere with learning. These generally find that fast production pacing decreases recognition and recall, relative to slow or medium pacing, and that using a variety of audio and visual elements decreases story recall (e.g., Lang et al. 2003). Tabloid-style production features increase arousal and attention but do not necessarily improve levels of recognition or recall. Slower pacing, simple language, concrete imagery, matched audio and video, recapping strategies, and presenting stories in chronological order all tend to increase the accuracy of recall. Recent studies of Internet news also indicate that complex formats may produce confusion and interfere with learning. Interactive website features that permit nonlinear navigation across news stories, for instance, can increase confusion and result in reduced acquisition of factual knowledge.
The interplay of audio and visual elements of news stories has received significant research attention. Findings suggest that the audio track typically dominates audience’s understanding of audiovisual presentations and that redundancy of the audio and visual elements enhances learning. When stories are non-redundant, viewers attend to the video at the expense of the audio and comprehension suffers (Drew & Grimes 1987). There is mixed evidence regarding the relative advantage of talking-head formats and filmic or pictorial formats. Pictures can impair learning recall of concurrently spoken information, but enhance recall of information presented in talking-head lead-ins that preceded the pictures. Film has been found to enhance recall compared to a talking-head format; however, a varied presentation combining a talking head and film is better than a uniform presentation of either type (Brosius 1991).
Often message features are dictated by the nature of new stories themselves. Some stories, for example those related to violence or disaster, naturally produce arousing and emotionally evocative material. Such materials influence viewers’ processing of information, though not always in consistent ways. Violent news appears to increase recall relative to nonviolent news, although this may depend in part upon the viewer’s gender. While arousing content increases viewers’ attention, it has mixed effects on recognition and recall. Some studies find that arousing television messages increase cued recall but decrease recognition; others find that arousing content increases recognition and free recall of news stories, but decreases cued recall (Grabe et al. 2003). Although visual materials in general may improve overall recall of story content, emotionally evocative visual imagery may lead to recall errors, likely because they narrow and focus viewers’ attention. Compelling negative imagery has also been found to reduce memory for the information that precedes it in a news story and to decrease long-term recall. The type of emotion induced by a visual image may also affect memory for news. Stories containing emotional images inducing an approach reaction, like anger, seem to be better remembered than those with emotional images evoking an avoidance reaction, like disgust (Newhagen 1998).
Story content may interact with formal message features in influencing processing and retention. When stories are focused on personalities, for example, more complex and extensive reports including redundant information appear to increase recognition, while event-centered news seems to be best conveyed using simple formats. When television stories are not particularly arousing, recognition and recall increase with faster production pacing, typical of tabloid-style production; when stories are arousing, on the other hand, faster pacing reduces both recognition and recall (Lang et al. 2003). The way in which news is framed, for example around human-interest elements, or conflict, or game or strategy aspects in the case of election news, also has consequences for audience processing and recall. Cognitive responses generated in response to a news story tend to mirror the frame used in organizing that story, and there is some evidence that human-interest frames or strategic-campaign frames may result in lowered rates of recall relative to other types of news frames (e.g., Valkenburg et al. 1999).
The emergence of so-called “soft news” outlets for candidate communication during the 1992 US presidential campaign – including late-night comedy, talk shows, and music television – attracted the attention of empirical researchers. Little evidence was found, however, to suggest that these alternative news sources produced much learning, either in the 1992 election or in the 1996 presidential elections. More recently, Baum (2003) found that soft news exposure predicted knowledge of information that was a primary focus of soft news coverage, although Prior (2003) found that a preference for infotainment did not predict knowledge measures, even when the latter reflected issues typically covered on such programs.
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