Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Print vs Print

There's been a rash of recent studies to help us understand how people learn from television versus print news.  Basically, those with less education tend to learn more from TV news than other media, in part because of the way television tells stories is more easily digested by those with less knowledge or motivation to keep up with public affairs.

But what about print versus print?

Earlier studies looked at reading the news in print paper form versus online and tended to find paper worked better than pixels.  I've even blogged about one aspect of this.  How do we explain the difference?  Isn't print like print, regardless of whether it's ink smushed on paper or pixels painted on a screen?  My own hunch is it has to do with the way we approach the medium. Paper is seen, unconsciously perhaps, as more serious or more deserving of attention, thus we tend to process news in that form better and, hence, do better on tests of political knowledge.

And so comes this new study (abstract only, sorry), published in the latest New Media & Society.  It finds that among higher education subjects, the kind of print (paper vs pixels) makes no difference in comprehension.  But for those of less education, paper works better as a source of information, at least when measuring comprehension.  The medium, then, is part of the message, but only in that we approach different media in different ways, with different expectations and different consequences of that exposure.

Less education can mean a lot of things -- cognitive ability, for example, but never underestimate the power of motivation.  Folks with less education tend to be less motivated to keep up with public affairs, in part because they fail to see how fairly abstract stories are linked to their daily lives.  If I was to try and explain the results above, I'd say less educated respondents somehow view print as more deserving of their attention than a screen, while those of greater education are equally able to glean useful information regardless of the kind of medium they are confronted with.  It fits the earlier television news stuff discussed above and adds another brick in the wall of what we know about how people choose their news source, how expectations color the way they process information, and what the consequences of these trends may be in the long run.

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