It is relatively easy to paint a depressing portrait of citizens’ news media use. Fed up with politics and tempted by the lure of more entertaining media, some tune out of politics and public affairs altogether. Others, driven by partisan proclivities, look to news sources that present agreeable views of the world. And facing more intense competition, news organizations struggle to advance both their journalistic and business missions. With these challenges, however, come opportunities. Are there more compelling ways to present news that might attract unengaged citizens? Are there ways to bridge partisan divides when presenting the news? Even more, can the news help people to approach other views with the same charity that they display when approaching views with which they agree? And can all this be done while advancing the bottom line? Answering these questions is the aim of my current research, the Engaging News Project. The goal of the Engaging News Project is to provide practical, research-based techniques for engaging online audiences in commercially-viable and democratically-beneficial ways. To this end, the project tests web-based strategies for informing audiences, promoting civil discourse, and helping citizens to understand diverse views. Systematic testing provides valuable information about what works, as well as what doesn’t. And by advancing both journalistic and business goals, the techniques are designed with contemporary newsrooms in mind. The Engaging News Project exists thanks to a grant from the Democracy Fund through our partners at the New America Foundation. The approach is not a complete overhaul of the news. Many contemporary practices have great merit. Today’s online newsrooms already engage in practices that assist citizens with finding relevant news content, such as providing hyperlinks to accompany news articles. Furthermore, there are numerous opportunities for citizens to interact on news sites, such as by participating in online polls or sharing news content via social media. Site visitors also are offered a forum to visit with others in comment sections. By building on these existing practices, the Engaging News Project represents a practical, research-based way to re-envision how news is presented. Here are four ways in which our project is working to advance these goals.
- Links. Hyperlinks are standard fare on news websites. By connecting people to more information, hyperlinks can help news site visitors to find more information and to learn more about important issues facing their communities. And from a business perspective, hyperlinks can improve site stickiness. What affects whether a person clicks on a link? Certainly the topic matters, as does the placement of a link on a page. But the prompts and headers that introduce people to hyperlinks also can have an effect. Labeling a set of links as “Most Popular,” for instance, can encourage people to click on the links to see what others are viewing. In our project, we analyze the effects of different prompts appearing before a set of hyperlinks. Drawing from popular theories about news seeking, we are testing whether a host of different prompts such as “Thanks for keeping up with the news. Be proud of protecting your democracy” affect citizens’ appetite for hard news content and news about different viewpoints.
- Buttons. “Like.” Not only is it an indelible component of casual sentence structure, the term also governs how we respond to everything from news articles to comments from our closest friends on Facebook. The term structures responses to online content. A heartwarming story about a local hero? “Like!” But “Like” doesn’t always seem appropriate. An article on a tragic event? It’s hard to hit “Like” in response. A fair-minded, but counter-attitudinal, post in a comment section? It’s challenging to press “Like.” What if news stations used other buttons? What if, instead of “Like,” one could click “Respect”? We are analyzing how different buttons affect citizens’ responses to comments from an online comment section. We want to know whether some buttons – and the concepts they convey – allow commenters to express their appreciation for counter-attitudinal postings more than others.
- Polls and Quizzes. Check out the local news websites in your area. Chances are that at least one of them will have a poll on their site. Chances also are good that the poll will not enrich your understanding of the world. It may ask you about entertainment (who wore the best dress at the Golden Globes?). Even if the poll is about an important issue (e.g. do you favor or oppose increased gun control?), the results offer no more insight than surveying a few friends about their thoughts on the issue. Online polls are interesting, and possibly entertaining, but rarely are they helpful for learning about your community. We test whether polls can be presented as quizzes that both engage and inform citizens. How many people do you think believe that gun control should be strengthened in the country? What percentage of the federal budget is dedicated to social security? These questions have answers. The first is based on public opinion data gathered using rigorous methodologies and the second comes from the Congressional Budget Office. We analyze whether different poll formats containing substantive news content can promote poll participation and learning.
- Online Discourse. I asked my undergraduate students in “Communication and Public Opinion” what they expected to find in the comment sections below news articles. Their answers? Some were optimistic: diverse views, responses to the news content, and deeper thinking about the topic. But others had quite pessimistic reactions: argument, incivility, discussion dominated by a few voices. Who is right? Our project analyzes the content of online comment sections. Are there some topics that inspire more engagement? What about more civility? As part of the Engaging News Project, we ask whether we can improve the quality of comment sections. If citizens are given a question to answer in the comment section, are they more likely to get involved? And if a reporter engages in the comment section, does this change the substance of the conversation? The analysis will allow us to provide insights about how citizens engage in news comment sections.
These four research projects are designed to advance our understanding of how to create news environments that support substantive engagement with political information and with other citizens. They aim to help news outlets excel at both their journalistic goals and their business endeavors. As we finalize the results in the coming months, we look forward to sharing our findings. We hope that they will provide valuable information to newsrooms and that they will spark more research and innovation in how news can be presented in new, and engaging, formats.