Journalism's guiding principle when it comes to content production and delivery appears to be give the audience more and give it to them faster. This has become even more evident to me as I prepare to conduct an experiment investigating how the content and packaging of online news stories and advertising effects the way readers pay attention to, learn from and respond to online news content. If results of my experiment turn out the way I predict, not only will the research demonstrate the value of applying brain science to online news production but it will show how the manner in which most online news websites are structured goes completely against my notion of "brain-friendly" news content.

Online news websites that are "brain-friendly" are produced such that the structural layout as well as actual content of the website complements the way our brains are set up to pay attention to, learn from, and respond to information. My position is that brain-friendly online news websites are not only more likely to actually make people smarter about the world around them --- my simple way of stating the ideal objective of journalism --- but also provide a more effective advertising environment, which should obviously benefit both advertisers and the news organization.

Washington Times 24/7Take a look at this website that is clearly NOT brain-friendly. Editor's note: This website link no longer goes to the original site.

I commend the journalists at the Washington Times for obviously producing a ton of content but this is a typical case where the structure of the website does not even come close to complementing well established properties of the human brain. The human brain is a limited capacity information processor, and yes this even holds true for younger brains that are part of the multi-tasking media use generation. Decades of research in cognitive psychology including studies by researchers interested in how the mind processes media, like myself, has demonstrated that throwing a lot of unrelated bits of information at individuals overloads the brain resulting in significantly less learning of new information. This information dump approach to news website design only serves readers who have a very specific story they may be seeking out on the website so that they can selectively tune out information that is irrelevant to their immediate need. There might also be an initial burst of excitement and somewhat positive attitude generated towards the news website by this rush of information exposure.

This website stakes out the position of delivering information in a 24/7 manner so delivering a lot of content that appears to be regularly updated is consistent with that image. However, once the rush of seeing so much information thrown at you passes you’re left with either scanning a bunch of unrelated headlines, getting a very shallow representation of important news, or irritatingly sifting through the story options to find one that might be interesting or relevant to your current information needs. This approach to news website design cannot escape the fundamental problem that by cognitively overloading readers by dumping a lot of unrelated stories accompanied by disjointed advertising on the website, their readers could likely mirror the results of a study receiving some press toward the end of last year that reportedly found that viewers of a particular news network were actually less informed about the world than individuals who didn’t watch television news. I would also predict that advertisements placed in this kind of web content do not result in good ad recall, a primary measure of advertising effectiveness.

The goal of my research is to provide insight into “brain-friendly” news website design. It will be tremendously helped by your own observations and thoughts about the extent to which journalism succeeds or fails at being “brain-friendly,” meeting the mission of promoting a well-informed society and better serving advertisers in free markets. I look forward to our exchange of ideas!

Paul Bolls  
University fellow


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