How Viewers' Process Live, Breaking, & Emotional TV News
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How Viewers’ Process Live, Breaking, and Emotional TV News
Live and breaking television news coverage has grown exponentially since the 1990s. Available time and technology, along with the economic pressure to increase ratings, have created an ideal environment for live and breaking news. Journalists intuitively believe these presentational techniques draw massive audiences seeking important information (Tuggle, Huffman, & Rosengard, 2002).
News stories presented as live and breaking often contain emotional visuals. Researchers believe that negative visuals demand viewer attention in ways other visuals do not (Newhagen & Reeves, 1992). This study seeks to test the effects of both live and breaking television news on viewers’ attention and memory. In addition, stories that evoke fear, anger, and disgust will be tested with the belief that each separate emotion has a different effect on information processing (Newhagen, 1998).
Tuchman (1978) defined breaking news as non-routine or unplanned news events that are covered in the course of a news cycle. It could be a “what-a-story” (Tuchman, 1973) such as a major passenger jetliner crash, or it could be a less tragic story such as a police chase. Either way, television news organizations believe that, when a story surpasses a particular newsworthiness threshold, it is necessary to inform viewers immediately of the event either by cutting into regularly scheduled programming or by interrupting the flow of a regularly scheduled newscast (Miller, 2000).
Breaking news is defined in this study as story that is 1) an unexpected event, 2) important, 3) labeled “breaking,” and 4) unscheduled. Live news is defined in the same way, except that the news is planned and scheduled. Live news occurs within a newscast. Breaking news can occur at anytime and can interrupt planned newscasts and other scheduled programming. Conversely, traditional (routine) news are news events that are planned and likely to have already taken place.
“Live” news presents events that are often associated with breaking news, although local TV news is replete with live news that is not “breaking.” The greatest strength of live broadcasting is its immediacy (Brooks, Kennedy, Moen, & Ranly, 2001). There is a prevailing belief among newsworkers that live presentation of the news helps attract viewers (Tuggle & Huffman, 1999). There is also a common industry assumption that live coverage has a positive effect on memory for stories (Snoeijer, de Vreese, & Semetko, 2001).
From the viewers’ perspective, Shoemaker (1996) suggests why we might expect that viewers process breaking and live news differently than traditional news. She proposed that viewers are predisposed to pay attention to news (most often “bad” news) because we are “hardwired” to respond to unexpected events in the environment. This response comes from the biological and cultural need to survey the environment for safety and curiosity. Humans attend to the unexpected and the novel because of an innate drive to know if external threats exist in the environment.
The content of breaking news is overwhelmingly negative (Harrington, 1998). Thus, viewers should attend to and remember breaking news better because it is consistently bad and as the surveillance function suggests and it is in evolutionary interests to do so. The anticipation of “what is going to happen next?” should increase viewer attention and thus memory for stories presented live.
The interrujption of scheduled programming is a key feature of “breaking”news and distinguishes it from “live” news. The interruption causes the story to stand out from its immediate context causing it to become the center of attention (Fiske & Taylor, 1991). Identifying a story as “live” or “breaking” may also contribute to the story’s salience. After attention is oriented to a breaking news story, viewers prepare themselves to hear and see bad news.
Emotionally-laiden video, often found in breaking news and live stories, adds yet another dimension to this type of coverage. Damaging natural disasters, deadly traffic accidents, and exciting high-speed police chases are seen with regularity on TV news (Newhagen, 1998). A majority of studies show that negative messages tend to be remembered better than positive ones (Lang, Dhillon, & Dong, 1995). Studies have found negative compelling video, in general, enhances memory (Newhagen & Reeves, 1992; Lang, Newhagen, & Reeves, 1996). The subtleties of negative emotions that could possibly affect viewers’ attention and memory were examined by Newhagen (1998), who found that video could elicit three primary negative emotions: anger, fear, or disgust. Images that elicited anger were best recognized (indexed as quicker RTs), followed by fear, then disgust. Newhagen reasoned that anger, as an “approach” emotion, would increase memory in comparison to “avoid” emotions such as fear and disgust.
A key issue in measuring attention and memory in research is the extent to which the cognitive processes required by a study session (in this case, watching television) and the processes required by a subsequent test (in this case, memory) match (Leshner & Coyle, 1996; Roediger, Weldon, & Challis,1989; Tulving, 1983). The secondary task reaction time is best interpreted as an index of the mental resources available at the encoding stage of processing (Lang, 2000; Lang & Basil, 1998). Recognition memory best indexes the extent to which information is encoded. Thus, the measures of attention and memory in this study both address the encoding processes of watching television news.
We posit the following:
H1: A story labeled as “breaking” will increase attention and memory.
H2: A story labeled as “live” will increase attention and memory.
H3: Attention and memory will be highest for stories that contain visuals that evoke anger, followed in order by fear, then disgust.
RQ1: Is there an interaction between “live,”“breaking,”and emotion on attention and memory?
Approximately 60 university students will be asked to watch a newscast in which the experimental manipulations will be presented.
Design and independent variables
The design of this within subjects experiment is a 3 (story type: traditional/live/breaking) X 3 (emotion: anger/fear/disgust) partial factorial within design. Both story type and emotion type will be within-subjects factors, but each participant will not see all nine possible combinations, but rather three. The set of combinations that a given participant will see represents a three-level between-subjects factor, which will be handled by counterbalancing. Presentation order will be handled by a Latin Square design so that each order of story-emotion combination will have an equal change of being represented.
Attention will be indexed by a secondary task reaction time task. Audio tones will be synchronized to the newscasts and will be presented at random intevals. Participants will be asked to watch the newscast (primary task) and press a button (secondary task) as quickly as they can when they hear an audio tone. Memory will be tested with a visual recognition task in which participants will be asked to discriminate between targets (were present in the newscast) and foils (were not present in the newscast). Accuracy and latency of responses will be recorded.
Stimulus Construction and Materials
Videotaped stories will be obtained by the researchers’ professional contacts at local TV stations throughout the country and from the RTNDA archive at the researchers’ home department. A videotape with approximately 30 stories depicting a wide range of live coverage will be prepared. Stories will selected for pretest that contain a video segment that includes images of destruction, injury, and suffering. The tape will be shown to approximately 30-40 undergraduate students (although two groups of students may be needed to rate stories depending on the total length of the story samples). Students will rate the stories using a pencil and paper questionnaire on three seven-point Likert-type response scales, one each for anger, fear, and disgust (Newhagen, 1998). Stories will be chosen according two categorization analytical techniques: factor analysis and comparative mean differences (e.g., stories that have mean ratings high on disgust, but low on both anger and fear would be candidates for the disgust condition).
Three examples of each of the three emotions will be selected for inclusion in the main study. One version of the each story will serve as the traditional story. Two additional versions of each will be created by superimposing a graphic to denote either “live” or “breaking news.” Stories will be edited so that they each run approximately two minutes. Each of these versions will contain video that the pretest showed to elicit either anger, fear, or disgust. Three stories that represent three combinations of story type and emotion will be edited into an already existing newscast and will appear among other, non target, stories. The entire stimulus tape will run approximately 20 minutes.
Participants will be asked to come to the research laboratory to participate in a study on how people watch television news. They will be told that they will watch a newscast, but first, the secondary task will be explained. Participants will be instructed to watch a newscast while monitoring the audio for a tone. When they hear a tone, they should press a button on a box attached to a computer as quickly as they can. After the entire newscast (including the three target news stories) are viewed participants will undergo a practice and the main sessions of the recognition memory task. Participants will then be debriefed and thanked.
Audio tones and the secondary task reaction times will be generated and compiled respectively by Psyscope (Cohen, MacWhinney, Flatt, & Provost, 1993) a psychological software program that will run on a Macintosh (G3) computer. Psyscope can generate the tones and collect the RT to +/- 1 msec. The button box will be connected to the computer. When the audio tone is sounded, the internal clock in the computer will begin. When the button on the button box is pressed, the internal clock stops. The latency time is then stored in a data file in Psyscope.
Recognition memory will also be indexed by Psyscope. Participants will be presented pictures on a computer screen, half that were presented in the newscast half that were not. Participants’ accuracy and latency will be recorded and stored in a data file in Psyscope.
November/December: Obtain live and breaking news video from contacts and RTNDA archive.
January: Pretest stories for study selection
February: Edit stimulus materials and set up experiment
March: Run experiment
April: Analyze data and write report
May: Present results
Brooks, B. S., Kennedy, G., Moen, D. R., & Ranly, D. (1999). News reporting and writing. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s.
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Fiske, S. T., & Taylor, S.E. (1991). Social Cognition. New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc.
Harrington, C.L. (1998). ‘Is anyone else out there sick of the news?!’: TV viewers’ responses to non-routine news coverage. Media, Culture & Society, 20 (3), 471- 494.
Lang, A. (2000). The limited capacity model of mediated message processing. Journal of Communication, 50(1), 46-70.
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Miller, A. (2000). The effects of conglomeration on local television news: A qualitative case study of the Wedgwood Baptist Church shooting. Unpublished master’s thesis, Texas Christian University, Fort Worth.
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Shoemaker, P. J. (1996). Hardwired for news: Using biological and cultural evolution to explain the surveillance function. Journal of Communication, 46(3), 32-47.
Snoeijer, R., de Vreese, C.H., & Semetko, H.A. (2001, May). The effects of live TV reporting on recall and appreciation of political news. Paper presented to the annual meeting of the International Communication Association, Washington D.C.
Tuchman, G. (1973). Making news by doing work: Routinizing the unexpected. American Journal of Sociology, 79(1), 110-131.
Tuchman, G. (1978). Making News: A Study in the Construction of Reality. New York: Free Press.
Tuggle, C., & Huffman, S. (1999). Live news reporting: Professional judgment or technological pressure? A national survey of television news directors and senior reporters. Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, 43(4), 492-505.
Tuggle, C., Huffman, S., & Rosengard, D. (2002, August). Live news reporting: How a young demographic views it. Paper presented to the annual meeting of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, Miami.
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