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Making multimedia news easier to understand

December 13, 2010

So I’m on a cognitive kick lately (thank you, last term paper I have to write) and I can’t stop thinking about how the brain processes information. I ran across a seven-year-old research paper that recommended nine ways to make learning easier for people trying to learn through multimedia presentations. I thought, “hey, wouldn’t that also apply to the news? I mean, really, people use the news to learn about the world around them. The news is the biggest source of education post-graduation, so maybe news outlets, specifically newspapers and online outlets, should be thinking about how people learn from multimedia presentations.”

From Mayers & Moreno (2003)

Mayer and Moreno (2003) wrote that when it comes to multimedia learning, people do five things gain a deeper understanding of the material before them. They select words and images, they organize words and images, and then integrate the information into their minds. To do this mental ingestion of information, the brain goes through three thinking or cognitive processes (Mayer & Moreno, 2003). First, there are essential processes that focus on (you guessed it) the essential material in a presentation. Second, there are incidental processes that aren’t needed to understand the presented material but may become activated by the presentation. Finally, the mind holds a mental image or representation of the information long enough for the brain to integrate the information, a process called representational holding. If one or all three of these processes are over-taxed, learning can be hindered.

Here’s what Mayer and Moreno suggested:

  1. Students learn better when words are presented as narration rather than on-screen text (modality effect). So avoid using on-screen text and narration.
  2. If that’s not possible, break up the presentation into digestible segments so the learner has time to organize/integrate information (segmentation effect). Or…
  3. … give students base-knowledge training so they can focus on integrating new information into existing knowledge structures (pretraining effect).
  4. Weed out non-essential, or incidental information so narration is as precise as possible (coherence effect). Or…
  5. … use signals and prompts that help the learner focus in on particular aspects of a presentation so they know they are about to see something they need to pay attention to (signaling effect).
  6. Ensure printed words are placed near a picture rather than having the words and images appear on opposite sides of the screen (spatial contiguity effect).
  7. Reduce duplication of having any narration match any on-screen text (redundancy effect).
  8. Make sure animation and narration are presented at the same time rather than one after the other (temporal contiguity effect).
  9. See if you can individualize presentations to fit learner’s needs.

Newsrooms trying to do multimedia presentations can integrate these ideas into their work. For instance, rather than tell a story over five minutes, why not break it up into one-minute segments the consumer can follow on their own? Signals during multimedia reports may help those consumers who lack the background knowledge to understand an event or story. (For ideas on how to do multimedia storytelling really well, check out Mastering Multimedia.)

However, there is at least one drawback to some of the suggestions. It may be tough for the news media to remove any text from a digital multimedia report in favor of narration because some online consumers may have a hearing impairment that requires them to read on the screen. A way to get around this problem is to provide a closed-caption option on the video or animation. Or, provide the story through multiple media platforms (sounds obvious, eh?) so the consumer can decide on a learning path that best suits their learning strengths.

While news outlets continue to look for ways to connect with readers, there is much to learn from educational research. Like I said before, the media are supposed to teach us about our world — shouldn’t journalists, then be good teachers?

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