What is the purpose of journalism?

sndcleTo experienced journalists — those who design the news for print, web, tablet and mobile every day — that might sound like a superfluous question. Yet that’s exactly the question that 2011-2012 Reynolds Fellow Paul Bolls put to members of the Society of News Design recently at their annual convention in Cleveland.

Designers the world over have been taught that form follows function — another way of saying that content should drive the design. But “purpose” can elicit several definitions, depending on viewpoint, perspective and where you are in the circle of communication.

Paul BollsBolls, an associate professor in strategic communications at the Missouri School of Journalism, has spent his fellowship exploring how the brain processes news and advertising. As co-director of the Psychological Research on Information and Media Effects (PRIME) Lab, Bolls uses lab equipment and research methods to measure psychological responses to news and advertising.

From his perspective, the answer to the question should come from the point of view of the reader or viewer: “As a reader, I want journalism to make me smarter. I want journalism to be my eyes and ears (for news, information and insight I can’t witness myself).” And as a journalist or an advertiser, you want the reader or viewer to understand and retain/remember the content.

Bolls’ prescription: Brain friendly design of news, information and advertising

That brings us to question number two: What is “brain friendly” news design?

“The brain is structured to search and scan,” says Bolls. “The brain then receives, evaluates, engages and responds (to news, information and advertising). There’s an entire field of neuromarketing, and how it affects product design.”

Bolls list several elements and observations from his research:

  • The brain is engaged through motivation. The best communication (news or advertising) plays to motivation … the brain responds to motivation. Emotion drives everything; the brain is a motivated information processor. Create content that motivates, engages, generates an emotional response.
  • The brain is a limited capacity processor; too much input can overload and cancel out understanding and retention. Consuming news and advertising involves encoding information (receiving), retrieval (adding previous knowledge for context) and storage (for future context). These need to be in balance. Too much effort for encoding new information (input) defeats the brain’s ability to add relevant context and to store the information. Keep it simple.
  • There’s what he calls “brain time” — the split second the brain decides whether there is sufficient motivation to continue. News and advertising designers have a split second design opportunity. More is not necessarily better. Keep it simple, straightforward and direct. Eliminate clutter.
  • The brain is a categorical, contextual information processor. Pay attention to organization, structure. Group or link to related information. Make the flow and navigation clean, clear.
  • Risk seekers (typically younger) like multi-media.
    • Love novelty.
    • Like a new perspective.
    • Are primarily visual.
  • To capture younger readers, news needs to look more like entertainment.
  • Risk avoiders (typically older) are calmer, prefer traditional media.
  • Readers have to make a decision to invest in your content. Help, don’t hinder, that decision process.

To learn more about designing news and advertising for the brain, contact Bolls at bollsp@missouri.edu.

View his slidedeck from his SND presentation

Brian Steffens  
Director of Communications


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