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Alex Remington is ready to test how you remember news content. Is it about the presentation?

As Paul Bolls and I finished our breakfast last week at the Broadway Diner, he said, “Let’s go set up a science experiment!”

Thirteen hours later, we were just about ready.

Since last fall, I’ve been working with Paul, a media psychologist at the University of Missouri, to design a lab experiment to test how news readers remember content, and specifically how their memory is affected by the way it is presented. We spent the first four months hammering out our methodology, research design and collaboration routine; the last two months gathering materials and getting them into shape; and the last week finally readying them for the lab. After a hearty diner breakfast and about 24 hours together between Wednesday and Thursday, Paul and I finally felt we were ready to do some science.

Here’s what we did.

To test the effectiveness of the presentation of a news story, we wanted to limit the effect of the content — but we also wanted to use real news stories, which meant that in many cases the text would not be the same.

To test the effectiveness of the presentation of a news story, we wanted to limit the effect of the content — but we also wanted to use real news stories, which meant that in many cases the text would not be the same.

We settled on a strategy of picking six news topics, and then for each topic we would have one presentation that we hypothesized would be “brain-friendly” and one that would be “brain-unfriendly.”

Paul and I strove to pick stories that would be unfamiliar to our lab subjects yet not so controversial as to arouse a strong emotional response (like a political scandal or a terrorist attack) or so abstruse as to be unmemorable. We also tried to make sure that, within each news topic, the two news stories were within a couple days of each other’s publication date, and each taking roughly the same approach to the story.

These are the six topics we picked: a slight increase in cases of Ebola, the effect of fracking on North Dakota oil prices, the discovery of the Higgs boson, the divergence of snowstorm predictions made by two different forecasting models, the effect of “space bubbles” on a battlefield in Afghanistan, and a proposal for “precision” or “personalized” medicine. With the exception of the Higgs boson stories, from March 2013, all of these stories were published in early 2015.

We then prepared the stories for use in the lab. That was the hard part. We wanted to show them on desktop, tablet and smartphone, and we wanted to display each story without any brand names or logos that might identify the original publisher, as that might confound our findings. I opened up Firefox, navigated to each story, clicked “Save Page As,” and selected “Web Page, complete.” Then I started digging into the HTML, JavaScript and CSS files that made each story tick. I modified logo images and deleted references to logos, and I edited text so that it would no longer identify the publisher. The National Post’s “Post Points” became “Loyalty Points,” and phrases like “told the Associated Press” became “said.” In cases where I couldn’t figure out how to remove the publisher’s name from a feature, like user comments — which are often hosted externally and embedded using embed code — I deleted the feature, though I preferred not to. Ideally, the story should look as much as possible like the original version. We then tested each of the 12 stories on each of three devices, squashing bugs as they arose. And there were a lot of them.

But after long hours in a short week — and a lot of coffee to nourish us as we worked — we were just about ready to start a science experiment.

Alex Remington  
   
Institutional fellowship project lead



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