By Andrea Miller, LSU
The visual clutter and hyperkinetic pace of modern TV news make it harder for a “breaking news” story to grab viewers’ attention. When news programs were more staid, producers could employ purely visual techniques to attract audience attention–a breaking news banner, for example. But in this era of visual overload, that’s no longer enough. Our study found that for a breaking news story to capture a viewer’s attention, it has to be personally relevant. What really draws attention, in other words, is “me news.”
We surveyed young viewers (mostly 18-22) and asked them what would make them pay attention to hypothetical breaking news stories. The topic list included stories about politics, entertainment, transportation, safety, crime, the economy and health.
We found that it doesn’t matter what story breaks into programming, viewers just want it to be personally relevant to them. No matter what the topic, participants gave the same top five reasons for paying attention: “affecting someone I care about,” “affecting me now,” “being important to me personally,” “mentioning someone I know,” and “relating to my job or interests.” The order varied slightly depending on the topic, but the overall thrust was the same: participants’ attention would be enhanced by any story that was personally relevant to them.
The results also showed that techniques often used in breaking news -– exaggerating story importance, showing dramatic pictures, and presenting the story in a sensational way — do not appear to work to gain the attention of these media-savvy viewers. Those attributes ranked near the bottom of the list of attention grabbers. In fact, these young viewers said that four things actually would cause them to pay less attention to a story: “making an issue more important than it really is,” “telling me information that I already know,” “trying to sell me something,” and “seeming fake.”
The study suggests that television news may be endangering its own future by constantly hyping irrelevant “breaking news.” If stories are presented as fast-paced and breaking, yet do not contain a relevance level, people may tire of the “cry wolf” attempts at gaining viewer attention.
We note that relevance in this study appears to be very person-specific. Community attributes that contribute to attention such as “affecting many people,” “affecting people like me,“ and “affecting my community” were important but they consistently ranked in the middle of the list. The personally salient, or “me” attributes received the most attention.
These results present a challenge for the news business, which has long operated on the principle that the foreign and the future are harder to sell than the familiar and the present. One need not search too far for a fatal example: trying to sell a story about terrorists in Afghanistan as “relevant” on September 10th, 2001. Both scholars and journalists need to find ways to break through the clutter of breaking news, to deliver what people need to know, even if they may not immediately recognize its relevance.
Andrea Miller is an assistant professor at the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University. She was a producer at KTVT-TV in Fort Worth, Texas, for five years and has also worked at stations in Dallas and Amarillo. A version of this research paper, co-authored with David Perlmutter of LSU, was presented at the 2004 AEJMC convention in Toronto.