Proximity, Not Story Format, Improves News Awareness Among Readers

Proximity, Not Story Format, Improves News Awareness Among Readers

Donnelly, Laura

News researchers have studied various facets of news recall and retention, including recall differences across media (newspapers, radio broadcasts and television newscasts), benefits of visuals in recall and how story style (feature story, news story, etc.) affects recall. The consensus of all these studies has been that media users recall very little of the news presented to them, regardless of medium or method.1 What related studies have determined, however, is that people remember and understand general information (not just news stories) more effectively if it is presented in a manner that is personally relevant or provides cues about importance and salience.2 And while no previous research has specifically tested news stories and editorials together for recall and understanding, research on newspaper editorials has pointed to the importance of editorial pages for informing citizens, helping cement their opinions and encouraging general newspaper readership.3

The key concepts of interest in this study are news awareness and proximity. In seeking to expand upon previous research, it is important to test not just news recall but news awareness-defined in numerous earlier studies as a reader’s knowledge plus understanding about the topic.4 The proximity concept, when applied to news and journalism, indicates the local nature of the news-how close, both physically and psychologically-an event is to the reader.3 Researchers have repeatedly found that issues to which the reader feels both a high physical and high psychological proximity are best recalled and understood.6 Recall increases directly with level of involvement and with level of prior knowledge about the subject.7

There are several benefits of studying story format and story proximity. In a practical sense, story format and proximity are important because they can be changed. Newspapers cannot affect their audiences’ educational or socioeconomic status, their previous knowledge or their cognitive frameworks-all factors in readers’ news awareness. Newspapers can, however, change the format used to present stories and the proximity of those stories to the readers’ everyday lives. The study of story format and proximity has the potential to produce useful, practical information that can improve news awareness in citizens.

Research Questions

To understand how story proximity is related to news vs. editorial format and how both proximity and format affect recall and awareness, the following research question is posed:

RQ1:

What is the relationship between proximity of news information, story format (news story vs. editorial) and degree of news awareness?

The literature suggests that recall of information is strongest for print media and for topics about which the reader has some previous knowledge. In addition, when recalling information, readers tend to relate it to their lives and fill in the missing spaces with culturally relevant information.8 These ideas, taken together, suggest the following hypothesis:

H1:

People will have a greater awareness of news when it is presented as local than when it is presented as nonlocal.

In addition, reading newspaper editorials and editorial pages may encourage readership of other sections of the newspaper as well as civic participation and a deeper understanding of local issues. Newspaper editorials provide cues about the importance of the information contained in the editorial based on that material’s selection as an editorial topic. Editorials also provide visual cues about importance because of their placement on the opinion page and a layout that differs from that of news stories. Editorials provide arguments that can help readers refine their own opinions about important issues. This understanding of newspaper editorials and their functions suggests another research question:

RQ2:

Does reading newspaper editorials produce a greater awareness of news than does reading hard news stories?

Therefore, a second hypothesis follows:

H2:

People who read a newspaper editorial will have a greater awareness of the information presented in it than readers who read the same information presented as a hard news story.

Method

Undergraduate students at Penn State University’s main campus served as participants in this study (N=100). There were 53 females and 47 males in the sample. The independent variables were story format and proximity. The independent variable ‘story format’ had two levels: news story and editorial. News stories use facts to present objective information, while editorials use arguments to present a particular position. The other independent variable, proximity, had two levels as well: local and non-local. For the purposes of this study, “local” stories are those that take place or have consequences in the readers’ present town, geographic area or state (State College, central Pennsylvania, etc.). Non-local stories take place or have consequences elsewhere.

The dependent variable was news awareness. A measure of news awareness was assessed via 24 open-ended and multiple-choice questions (six questions each for four stories).

A 2 (story format) x 2 (proximity) factorial within-subjects experimental design was used, resulting in four conditions-local news story, local editorial, non-local news story and nonlocal editorial. Each participant was exposed to every condition. Story packets were counterbalanced to ensure that the order in which participants saw the story formats and proximity treatments varied among the sample. Each subject read four stories and completed a questionnaire measuring recall and understanding of each story.

Four actual stories were pulled from the Associated Press wire to create the story versions. The stories were chosen because they were fairly short (about 420 words average) and because details related to proximity could be changed without substantially affecting the meaning of the story. The stories were also non-timely, so that participants’ recall and perceptions would not be confounded by mentions of the topics in the actual news media. The four story topics were regulation of cellular phones in cars, elective plastic surgery among college students, exercise preventing the common cold and drug use affecting financial aid awards.

In preparing the four versions of each news topic, the original story from the Associated Press wire was used in its original state or slightly shortened for the non-local news story version. For the local news story version, references to non-local cities, towns, states, groups, etc. were replaced with similar local or state references.

To create the local and non-local editorial versions, the facts and names from the news versions were counted, and a short newspaper editorial was created containing these same facts and names. In the cell phone story, for example, the editorial was written to either reflect that the state of Pennsylvania should regulate cell phones (in the local version), or that states in general-rather than the federal government-should regulate cell phone use (in the non-local version.) This process was applied to each topic in creating the editorial versions. Again, the topic and facts presented were identical for all four story versions-only the presentation and proximity details were different. Each of the story versions was equally represented in the sample.

Participants’ recall and understanding of the stories were measured using a scale derived from Gunter’s news awareness scale.” This scale measures both identification of pertinent facts and understanding of why these facts are pertinent. For each story, participants answered five open-ended questions and one multiple-choice question testing their recall and understanding of the story. The emphasis on open-ended questions was chosen based on previous research findings that open-ended recall questions provide cues that prompt retrieval and also test understanding of the item as a whole.10 In determining participants’ news awareness scores, openended answers were coded based on a scale of two points for complete recall and understanding, one point for partial recall and understanding (or recall without understanding) and zero points for failure to recall information at all. “Complete” and “partial” understanding were predefined and acceptable answers were listed in a codebook used in analyzing responses. Multiple-choice questions were coded as two points for a correct answer and zero points for an incorrect answer. News awareness scores could range from zero to 12.

The researcher coded all of the news awareness questionnaires. To examine the reliability of the coding decisions, a graduate student who had been trained in the procedure independently coded a sample of 25 of the news awareness questionnaires. Potter and Levine-Donnerstein’s modification of Scott’s Pi was used in the computation of reliability indicators.11 Across all variables coded, reliabilities ranged from .82 to 1.00, with an average reliability indicator of .93, indicating acceptable levels of reliability.

Findings

Because news awareness and perceptions varied as a function of story topic (e.g., cell phones, surgery, colds, and drugs), awareness and perception scores were first standardized within story topic. Subsequently, these scores were coded to represent the proximity (local, non-local) and story format (news, editorial) conditions: local news, non-local news, local editorials and non-local editorials.

A 2 (story format) x 2 (proximity) repeated measures analysis of variance (ANOVA) was conducted to examine the dependent variable of news awareness. This analysis revealed a main effect for proximity, with participants displaying greater news awareness for local stories (M = .16, SE = .07) than non-local stories (M = -.16, SE= .08), F(1, 99) = 13.38, p

Discussion

The purpose of this study was to examine whether format and proximity of the story affected readers’ awareness of news information. The simple answer is “no” for story format and “yes” for proximity. Whether news information was presented as an editorial or as a hard news story did not affect news awareness; means for recalling and understanding news stories and editorials were extremely similar. Proximity, however, made a significant difference in readers’ news awareness. Participants scored significantly higher on the news awareness scale for local stories-regardless of format-than for non-local stories. News awareness, then, did not appear to be connected to the format of the news.

Conversely, this study suggests that the proximity of news information can significantly influence a reader’s news awareness. Information that was local was recalled and understood significantly better than information about more distant places.

One possible reason that participants scored higher on the news awareness scale for local stories could simply be greater name recognition of the local place names. Although the news awareness scale included items that measured both recall and understanding, a low score on the scale could indicate only recall. It is possible that in some cases participants did not really understand anything about either local or non-local stories; however, for local stories, they at least recalled the locations.

Another possible reason for higher awareness of local news may be connected to the concept of schematic thinking. According to this concept, people reading the news sometimes come across information that activates a schema of previously stored knowledge and helps provide context for the new information.12 In this study, when participants came across local place names and references like “State College, PA” early in a story, a schema of related information may have been activated, causing the reader to unconsciously pay more attention to the story and consequently score higher on the news awareness scale.

In addition, social desirability may have played a role in participants’ greater awareness of local news. Social desirability is the phenomenon in which people demonstrate behaviors or provide information based on what they think is expected of them or what they believe to be “right.”13 In the case of recalling and understanding news, social desirability may have encouraged participants to pay greater attention to the local stories, based on the belief that “This is local; I’m probably supposed to know about it.” A common refrain in the United States is how little Americans know about their own governments and how few people know the names of their elected representatives or understand local politics. One outcome could be that people pay extra attention when presented with a local article, reasoning that it is something they should understand.

The results of this study suggest that increasing the number and the depth of local stories may be the single most important thing newspapers can do to encourage an engaged readership. If readers have a significantly greater understanding of local stories, connecting all issues to proximity may go a long way in creating a more informed public. The balance of local versus national and international stories in a newspaper is determined on a daily basis by editors; a decision to increase the number of local stories or including local stories of greater depth and detail could lead to better news awareness in citizens over time. Of course, to newspaper editors, the need to localize concept news coverage is not new. Small-town newspapers have for decades been localizing national and international stories, working under the assumption that local news sells newspapers; also people like to read about themselves, their neighbors and their town. But local news can be expensive; editors can run wire stories using a fraction of the time and effort needed to cover local news. A paper can serve the goal of an informed public by encouraging news awareness, and news awareness may indeed come from a better local news mix. While the economic ramifications of increased local news may sometimes be difficult, the alternative-a public disconnected and unaware of local news-is equally hard to swallow. Such localization, while initially difficult, might contribute to a more broadly educated public, a citizenry that has a stronger grasp on news issues and their consequences.

Despite much research in this area, there still appears to be no magic bullet-no easy fix for the public’s relative unawareness about much of the news. But local newspapers should not underestimate their ability to encourage greater news awareness among their readership.

Notes

1. See, for example, Karen Browne, “Comparisons of Factual Recall from Film and Print Stimuli,” Journalism Quarterly 55 (1978): 350-353; Melvin L. DeFleur, Lucinda Davenport, Mary Cronin, and Margaret H. DeFleur, “Audience Recall of News Stories Presented by Newspaper, Computer, Television and Radio,” Journalism Quarterly 69, no. 4 (1992): 1010-1022.; Adrian Furham, “Remembering Stories as a Function of the Medium of Presentation,” Psychological Reports 89, no. 3 (2001): 483-486; Barrie Gunter, Colin Berry, and Brian Clifford, “Remembering Broadcast News: The Implications of Experimental Research for Production Techniques,” Human Learning, 1, no. 1 (1982): 12-38; John Stauffer, Richard Frost, and William Rybolt, “Recall and Learning from Broadcast News: Is Print Better?” Journal of Broadcasting 25, no. 3 (1981): 253-262.

2. Margaret H. DeFleur, “Mass Communication and the Study of Rumor,” Sociological Inquiry 32, no. 1 (1962): 51-72; David Tewksbury, and Scott L. Althaus, “Differences in Knowledge Acquisition among Readers of the Paper and Online Versions of a National Newspaper,” Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly 77, no. 3 (2000): 457-479.

3. Ernest C. Hynds, “Editors at Most U.S. Dailies See Vital Roles for Editorial Page,” Journalism Quarterly 71, no. 3 (1994): 573-582; Elsa Mohn and Maxwell McCombs, “Who Reads Us and Why,” The Masthead 40, no. 2 (1988): 18-23.

4. Barrie Gunter, “News Sources and News Awareness: A British survey,” Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media 29, no. 4 (1985): 397406; Thomas Patterson, The Mass Media Election. (New York: Praeger 1980); Michael Schudson, “Creating Public Knowledge,” Media Studies Journal 9, no. 3 (1995): 26-32; Helmut Giegler and Gorge Ruhrmann, “Remembering the News: A LISREL Model,” European Journal of Communication 5, no. 5 (1990): 463-488.

5. Ralph Izard, Hugh Culbertson and Donald Lambert, Fundamentals of News Reporting (Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Co., 1994).

6. Mitchell Shapiro and Wenmouth Williams, “Civil Disturbance in Miami: Proximity and Conflict in Newspaper Coverage,” Newspaper Research Journal 5, no. 1 (1984): 61-69; Norman Luttberg, “Proximity Does Not Assure Newsworthiness,” Journalism Quarterly 6, no. 1 (1983): 731-732; C. Honaker, “News Releases Revisited,” Public Relations Journal 37 (1981): 25-27; Linda Morion and John Warren, “Proximity: Localization vs. Distance in PR News Releases,” Journalism Quarterly 69, no. 4 (1992): 1023-1028; Sandra L. Schneider and Suzanne K. Laurion, “Do We Know What We’ve Learned from Listening to the News?” Memory und Cognition 21, no. 2 (1993): 198-209; Vincent Price and John Zaller, “Who Gets the News? Alternative Measures of News Reception and their Implications for Research,” Public Opinion Quarterly 57, no. 2 (1993): 133-164; Olle Findahl and Birgitta Hijer, “Some Characteristics of News Memory and Comprehension,” JoitrnalofBroadcastingand Electronic Media 29, no. 4 (1985): 379-396.

7. Richard E. Petty and John T. Cacioppo, “Issue Involvement Can Increase or Decrease Persuasion by Enhancing Message-relevant Cognitive Responses,” journal of Personality and Social Psychology 37, no. 10 (1979): 1915-1926; Fergus M. Craik and Robert .S. Lockhart, “Levels of Processing: A Framework for Memory Research,” Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior 11, no. 1 (1972): 671-684.

8. DeFleur, Mass Communication and the Study of Rumor, 1962

9. Gunter, News Sources and News Awareness, 1985.

10. Colin Berry, “Learning from Television News: A Critique of the Research,” Journal of Broadcasting 27, no. 4 (1983): 359-370.

11. W. James Potter and Deborah LevineDonnerstein, “Rethinking Validity and Reliability in Content Analysis,” Journal of Applied Communication Research 27, no. 3 (1999): 258-284.

12. Robert H. Wicks, “Remembering the News: Effects of Medium and Message Discrepancy on News Recall Over Time,” Journalism Quarterly 72, no. 3 (1995): 666-679.

13. William P. Eveland and Douglas M. McLeod, “The Effect of Social Desirability on Perceived Media Impact: Implications for Thirdperson Perceptions,” International Journal of Public Opinion Research 11, no. 4 (1999): 315-333.

Laura Donnelly is an assistant editor at the online political journal TomPaine.com.

She received her master’s in media studies at Pennsylvania State University. She wishes to thank Dr. Mary Beth Oliver, professor of communication in the College of Communications at Perm State, for her assistance.

Copyright Newspaper Research Journal, Department of Journalism, University of Memphis Winter 2005

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