Is It the Medium or the Message?

Is It the Medium or the Message?

Is It the Medium or the Message? Structuring Complex News to Enhance Engagement and Situational Understanding by Nonexperts Ronald A. Yaros University of Utah, Salt Lake City
An experimental design, theoretically motivated by cognitive models of text comprehension, investigates effects of structures in complex news on readers (undergraduate non-science majors) who have little or no expertise for the content (science and technology). Text from two New York Times stories were modified for a proposed explanatory structure building (ESB) model to enhance reader interest in and comprehension of the content. Dependent variables include self-reported situational interest and a deeper situational understanding of the text as measured by sorting tasks and inferencegenerating questions. A between-subjects field experiment exposed participants (N = 235) to text on a Web page in either the traditional inverted pyramid or ESB structure. As predicted, when controlling for pretest levels of scientific literacy, the ESB news text significantly enhanced reader interest and understanding of the content, as compared to the original inverted pyramid news stories. Results are interpreted in the context of enhancing the public understanding of complex news issues.
Keywords: science communication; health and technology; interest; news discourse; news comprehension; situational understanding In his book Understanding Media, Marshal McLuhan (1964) introduced the world to his enigmatic paradox that “the medium is the message.” Congruent with McLuhan’s theory, myriad communication studies since the 1960s have sought to explain macro-scale effects of exposure to news by measuring the public’s attitude or perceptions or its recall and recognition of news content. We are reminded, however, that the definition of media effects also includes influences of either the form or the content of media (McLeod, Kosicki, & Pan, 1991; McLeod & Reeves, 1980). Accordingly, this study posits that the public’s reception of complex news issues is defined not only by mere exposure or attention to content and that exposure and attention may not always lead to an understanding of issues or individual action.

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