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New Study Suggests Readers Recall More from Print than Digital News – if You Can Trust the Data

3660097148_5d3ac33084_b[1]A newly published paper from the University of Houston appears to show that test subjects who get their news from newspapers recall more details than those who get their news online, but there are serious questions about the validity of the study.

Dr. Arthur D. Santana, a former journalist and assistant professor in the Jack. J. Valenti School of Communication at the University of Houston, recently conducted a study which examined the difference in users’ experiences in print and online media. In that study a group of college students were asked to read from the NYTimes for 20 minutes and then asked to list the headlines, general topics, and main points of as many stories as they could remember.

According to the press release, the test subjects who read online recalled an average of 3.35 stories, while those who read the print edition remembered an average of 4.24 news stories, thus showing the obvious benefits of print over digital.

Or maybe not.

Ever since the latest digital v print study made the rounds a few weeks ago, I’ve been talking about these types of studies with a pair of specialists who have been conducting research in this area. While they would rather not be named, our discussions have pointed me at a few problems with this paper and the study it is based on.

In this case, one of the problems I can see in this study is that there was only the mention of a survey and not any source of data. That is but a single data point, which means that there is only so much you can measure. What’s more, the test subjects were asked to simply read from the NYTimes, rather than given specific articles. That lack of a structured reading setup, when combined with the open ended survey, means that you can’t prove that the test subjects didn’t recall a detail; it just means they didn’t report it.

In contrast, test subjects in the study discussed last month were required to read a specific story and then extensively quizzed on the details in the story. While that study had its own issues (many of the test subjects had never before used the devices they were tested on) in some ways it still had a better procedure.

In short, there’s really not much that can be said about this study.

image by lethaargic




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Timothy Wilhoit September 16, 2014 um 6:26 am

No, not much can be said about this study. You’re exactly right in saying the Norwegian researcher’s at least had structure…this one has none. A traditional newspaper is well-suited to a skimmer. There are a number of stories in one spot and the main points are concentrated in the first few paragraphs…before the "continued on page xx" break. Interestingly, that’s exactly what the researcher was testing: quantity of topics recalled and main points recalled. The internet reader might have gotten caught up in a fanciful Streitfield column and only read one story. 😀

Seriously, the researcher’s preconceptions might be shown here:

"Santana said that unlike print news, online news is ephemeral; it can appear and disappear without warning, creating an element of distraction. It can also hasten the impression that since stories and headlines are apt to vanish, they are perhaps not worth remembering." That was quite a leap.

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