The Structure of Text and Links Can Significantly Affect Reader Interest and Understanding

This study in Science Communication, tested two combinations of text and links (links to web sites versus links to explanations). For complex news about health and science, explanatory text with links that DON’T take users to other web sites significantly enhanced user interest and comprehension of information.
Two stories from  New York Times.com were tested, one about breast cancer and the other nanotechnology. The texts were rewritten so that the background and explanatory information appeared much earlier in the stories. The original and rewritten stories were combined with either “generic” links to related web sites or specific links to a small window that provided more explanation.

IN COMPLEX NEWS, IT’S BEST TO USE EXPLANATORY TEXT WITH EXPLANATORY LINKS BUT NOT LINKS TO OTHER WEBSITES

CLICK TO REVIEW TEXT AND LINK COMBINATIONS

The experiment exposed text and link combinations to 301 participants. Results indicate that complex information (such as this blog post) was rated by readers to be more interesting, and understood significantly better, when explanatory texts were combined with explanatory links to definitions or explanations (such as the graphic on the left). As you read this, you have the option to view the explanatory graphic then return to this text. Results from the study suggest journalists should consider the same structure when reporting complex news. Links should also be placed as close to the related text as possible.

CLICK TO REVIEW RESULTS

BUT IN LESS COMPLEX NEWS THAT MOST READERS UNDERSTAND, THE STANDARD NEWS STRUCTURE WITH GENERIC LINKS TO OTHER WEBSITES WAS STILL BETTER

Interestingly, the opposite result occurred for less complex news structured in a traditional “inverted pyramid” with links to only related websites. (The “inverted pyramid” structure, which is still taught in journalism schools, arranges details in order of importance with explanations usually appearing lower in the news story.) The “crisscross” pattern in the graphic illustrates the opposite results.

THE BOTTOM LINE IS THAT EVERY STORY NEEDS TO BE APPROACHED AS A “TEXT AND LINK” STRUCTURE, DEPENDING ON ITS CONTENT

One implication of these findings is that merely adding “related links” – even to well written text – does NOT always enhance user interest in and understanding of complex news online. Another implication of this study applies to journalism education. Although instructors of online journalism are already teaching students skills to embed links into web stories, results from this research suggest the need to stress how and when certain types of links should be combined with certain structures of text, depending on a story’s complexity. In other words, writing good news text should not be taught in isolation of link structures if journalists are to produce the most coherent news that online audiences find interesting and understandable.

An abstract of the published study is available from the journalScience Communication. The university’s press release is available at http://bit.ly/dE8o21.

About Ron Yaros

Ronald A. Yaros researches audience engagement with multimedia and mobile journalism. His publications, including two book chapters, explore how audiences seek, select and share news. As a Blended Learning Fellow for interactive classes with social networks and a custom mobile app, he tests new ways to communicate digital information. Dr. Yaros was one of two student-nominated 2012 Excellence in Teaching Awards on campus. Prior to completing a Ph.D. in 2005 at the University of Wiiscosin-Madison, his professional experience included twenty-five years as an Emmy-award winning broadcaster and president of a software company.
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