Media Effects Research Lab fosters new research on information processing

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — From the moment we wake up to the second we go to sleep, we’re bombarded by media and technology. We read the news on our smartphones, play the latest apps on our tablets and catch up on the newest TV and movies on Hulu and Netflix.

The way these different types of media affect us has become a hot topic of study. The Media Effects Research Lab, a specialized lab on Penn State’s University Park campus, is dedicated to examining just this — from how social media changes our communication to why we love to be scared by horror movies. And one researcher, communications professor Bu Zhong, is interested in how we process the news, whether online or in the newspaper.

Zhong says he’s long been interested in the psychological effects the media have on consumers. It’s one of the reasons he became involved in the Media Effects Research Lab, and why seven years ago he also joined the psychology department’s Emotion Research Network, which is devoted to research on human emotions.

“My colleagues started talking about how emotion might color people’s recall of local or global information,” Zhong says. “I thought it would be interesting if I could use the idea to test the recall of news information and, to my surprise, no one had studied it before.”

Suspecting that emotions did indeed have an effect on the way we process news, Zhong designed an experiment to test his hypothesis. Student volunteers were instructed to read three news reports: one international, one domestic and one sports-related. Names of U.S. states and cities were removed from the stories to minimize proximity effect (biases based on where someone lives or is from).

Before the students were asked to read the news stories, they were randomly assigned to complete a happy, sad or neutral “mood induction.” The students wrote for 15 minutes about a recent event that made them feel happy or sad or describe a "normal" day.

After reading the news stories, they completed a questionnaire to evaluate their memory of what they read.

The results showed that whether the participants were in a happy, sad or neutral mood did have an effect on the way they remembered the news stories. Those in a happy mood remembered more generalized, overview information, and the sad or neutral participants recalled more facts and details.

The findings have impacted the way Zhong thinks about modern journalism.

“To help readers get a realistic account of the outside world, I believe journalists should strive to report not only ‘bad’ news, but also heartwarming stories,” Zhong says. “Not that they should artificially devote a certain percentage to happy or sad articles, but they may not want to focus so much on sad stories. Readers, meanwhile, should know their emotions can unconsciously impact what they pick up on.”

It’s a sentiment shared by many: news stories can focus too heavily on all that’s wrong with the world. But having research to back it up gives the complaint more credibility. Alyssa Appelman, a Ph.D. candidate and instructor in Penn State’s College of Communications, is interested in delving deeper into what other factors affect information processing.

Many of the long-accepted rules of journalism — like Associated Press Style and the inverted pyramid — are still practiced because that’s how it’s always been done. Appelman is curious about whether these practices actually help readers retain and process the information they read.

“What about the empirical evidence to back it up?” Appelman says.

She recently published a Media Effects Research Lab study with Zhong that examined whether the participants’ online habits and familiarity with technology affected how they processed news information. Appelman and Zhong had their student volunteers write a short essay, read a news article and answer questions about the article and their online media use.

Appelman says they had suspected that web surfing before reading an article might make readers enjoy it more and perceive the information as more credible. While this wasn’t shown to be the case, Appelman says they did find some interesting results.

“We saw positive associations between how much of the article a participant remembered and how much they enjoyed it and thought it was credible,” Appelman says. “These are interesting correlations as we try to learn more about online information processing.”

Both Appelman and Zhong plan to continue their research on news processing. Appelman will continue looking for new information and research to better educate her journalism students, and Zhong plans to research how moods may have other impacts on people’s behavior.

As for us, we’ll get back to our screens. 

For more IT stories at Penn State, visit http://news.it.psu.edu.

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Last Updated July 28, 2017