It's been four months since I started my Reynolds Fellowship and three months since I visited Columbia, Missouri, and I've been trying to keep moving the work forward. It's been an education — not just in the state of the field I've chosen, but in how to maintain a long-distance collaboration.

I'm interested in understanding how the way that stories are presented affects whether a reader will understand or remember them. As a model, I'm supposing that a story is composed of content elements and presentational elements, and I want to learn how the presentation affects memory and understanding, holding content constant. If this can be measured, then it can be optimized.

So I've been reading research, and talking to people. Much of what I've read has been in the field of psychophysiology, particularly work done by my collaborator, Paul Bolls, a professor at the Missouri School of Journalism and 2011-2012 Reynolds Fellow who has done a substantial amount of work in measuring how the brain responds to media information. I've also been looking at other articles in related areas such as eye-tracking research done by journalists and communications scholars, who analyzed the specific ways that readers approached information laid out on a page. And I've spoken to more than a dozen news designers — people who work in both print and digital design — to ask them how they approach the presentation of information.

In general — and I say this with the heavy caveat that I am very much a newcomer with a weak understanding of the literature — it seems like the study of media memory is a relatively young and untapped field. Of the practitioners that I've talked to, hardly any of them say that it is a primary consideration in their work, and this is partly because there is no good readily available data that they can look to. Page views and unique visitors are not proxies for memory.

All of this has been fascinating. But I have also been working on designing research to test this. This ultimately has three components:

  1. Getting organizational approval for a research design and budget for research.
  2. Conducting the research.
  3. Analyzing and writing up the data.

Nearly all of this must be accomplished at a distance because I’m in Washington, D.C., and my collaborator is in Columbia. And all of this must be heavily coordinated since we both have day jobs. I've never done anything like this before, and I am learning that everything takes longer when it is at a distance. I’ve had to learn to plan to plan. Frustrating as the wait can be, it's tremendously exciting. I feel that I have a chance to actually make a contribution to the science, to the business, and to readers.

Alex Remington  
Institutional fellowship project lead


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