Choosing and reading online news: how available choice affects cognitive processing.

Author:Wise, Kevin

Giving people the ability to choose from a wide variety of content when they want to see it is a hallmark of today's interactive media landscape. News/information portals, blogs, video-on-demand, and file-sharing galleries all give computer users the freedom to choose content from vast arrays of options, then acquire and view that content with the click of a mouse. To date, researchers have not thoroughly examined the mental processes that occur when people choose and receive information from Web sites that offer varying amounts of options.

The ritual of scanning, choosing, and receiving hyperlinked content can be repeated multiple times during a person's visit to a Web site. This ritual and the underlying mental processes involved fundamentally shape the experience of receiving news online. Therefore, it is important to understand how various features involved in presenting online news affect cognitive processes involved in selecting, reading, and remembering an online news story. This study serves as an initial investigation of how one feature, the number of hyperlinked stories presented, affects cognitive processing of a selected story. Results obtained can advance theoretical understanding of information processing of mediated content in an unexplored area of news consumption. Findings may also provide news producers with some insight into Web site design that will maximize the ability of their audience to be informed by attending to and remembering content of online news stories.

It is proposed here that the mental work a person does in scanning and choosing a hyperlinked news story has consequences for cognitive and emotional processing of information contained in the story. Thus, any feature of a news Web site that could affect mental effort invested in selecting stories, such as the number of hyperlinks from which an individual chooses stories to read, could significantly affect how the content of a story is attended to and remembered.

There is precedence for theorizing that the number of hyperlinked news stories on a Web site could influence responses to received information. Scholars studying decision-making have demonstrated that the number of options available for an individual to choose from affects responses to their choice (Iyengar & Lepper, 2000; Wise & Pepple, in press). This finding has been obtained in the context of choosing among different brands of a product as well as selecting pictures to view from varying arrays of photographs. Receiving news from online sources provides another interesting decision-making context in which individuals are presented with numerous options. Google News, for example, links Web surfers with every available story on a particular event. For prominent events, the number of stories from which a person can choose may reach into the hundreds. Scholars studying the effects of available options on responses to an individual's choice have not yet examined it in the context of choosing stories from an online news interface.

This study is designed to fill a gap in media processes and effects research by examining cognitive processing in the unexplored context of choosing, reading, and remembering online news. Such research is necessary because the mental processes used in selecting and processing online news could be somewhat different from processes engaged by previously studied decision-making tasks. This research may also advance theoretical understanding of the relationship between choosing media content and cognitively processing the selected content. Media processes and effects scholars have not thoroughly explored how media features presented to an individual in the act of selecting content influences cognitive processes engaged during exposure to the received content.

Studying the relationship between choosing and processing selected online news stories requires analysis of two mental tasks: (1) scanning pictures and headlines in order to choose a story, and (2) reading the text of the story once it has been chosen. These tasks are important to consider because the precise demands placed on cognitive resources are likely to differ between them.

A theoretical model that has received widespread support for explaining how individuals allocate cognitive resources to processing mediated messages is Lang's Limited Capacity Model of Motivated Media Message Processing (A. Lang, 2006). First described by A. Lang (2000), the fundamental assumption of the model is that processing a mediated message involves a continuous interaction between the human information processing system and features of the mediated message. Processing media content involves allocating limited cognitive resources to the subprocesses of encoding, storage, and retrieval. The degree to which cognitive resources are allocated to each of these subprocesses varies based on both individual goals and message features. A. Lang (2006) theorized that individuals increase cognitive resources allocated to processing media content portraying motivationally important information (i.e., danger, food, sex, etc.). This notion seems particularly relevant to cognitive processing of news as much of the content of news stories deals with potential danger and other negative events. For this study, it means taking a closer look at the nature of encoding, storage, and retrieval of information contained in an online news story reporting unpleasant events.

Encoding, storage, and retrieval are not performed in serial order. Rather, as an individual encodes new information from a mediated message, information previously stored in long-term memory is retrieved as part of the process of storing the new information in memory (A. Lang, 2006). Retrieving information from long-term memory and holding it in short-term working memory along with any encoded new information from a message is a critical step in effectively storing information from a news story in long-term memory. At a minimum, an individual reading a news story must retrieve knowledge of language, stored in long-term memory, in order to make any sense out of information from the story that is being encoded into working memory. Thus, processing a news story involves the simultaneous allocation of cognitive resources to encoding, retrieval, and storage. It is critical to note that cognitive resources are not allocated equally among all three tasks. An individual's goals as well as features of a news story can elicit increased resource allocation to one of the three tasks, leaving fewer cognitive resources to be allocated to the others. For example, in a study on cognitive processing of radio advertisements it was found that as more cognitive resources were shifted to retrieving information out of long-term memory to aid in storing a message, fewer resources were allocated to encoding details of the message (Boils, in press).

The clear implication of the limited capacity model for how individuals process online news is that both individual goals and message features will affect the allocation of cognitive resources across the mental tasks involved in choosing, processing, and remembering news stories. Both individual goals and message features vary across the previously mentioned stages of selecting and reading online news. Therefore, cognitive resources are likely allocated among encoding, storage, and retrieval to varying degrees depending on the precise processing demands at each stage. This makes it important to consider the demands likely present at each stage of an online news-viewing episode: choosing a story from an array of pictures and headlines and then reading the text of the chosen story.

When a user visits a news Web site, they typically encounter a series of short headlines meant to grab attention and lead into the story. Sometimes, a related photograph accompanies these headlines. If someone has gone online simply to browse the news, without a particular informational need, the goal at this stage may simply be to choose a story that looks interesting (Tewksbury, 2003). The combination of Web site features and user goals at the story selection stage seems likely to elicit the allocation of processing resources to encoding features of the photographs and headlines. Previous research has demonstrated that negative, compelling visual images, such as those often found in news content, automatically increase resources allocated to encoding both photographs as well as video (P. J. Lang, Greenwald, Bradley, & Harem, 1993; Lang, Newhagen, & Reeves, 1996). It is important to note that such negative, compelling images are often perceived as such because the image represents a potential threat and therefore would seem to fit the description of motivationally relevant content. But what about storage? It seems likely there is little reason to store information in long-term memory at the point of selecting a story to read from an array of pictures and headlines. An individual simply needs to encode the available headlines and accompanying pictures in order to click through the link and read the full story. Storing detailed information contained in the pictures and headlines in long-term memory is not necessary to decide which story to select to read and could actually interfere with processing the oncoming story.

Once a person has chosen a story by clicking through a hyperlink, the mental task changes dramatically. After all, the stimulus package has changed from an array of unrelated topics and accompanying pictures to a string of related sentences. The task at this stage is to read the selected story, which should increase cognitive resources allocated to retrieving information from long-term memory in order to store information from the story in memory. Most of the mental work involved in reading text is focused...

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