Links appear on every web page. Our study, published in Science Communication, shows that non-expert audiences engage with and understand complex news when explanatory text and links that further explain that text (not just links to other websites).
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
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.
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.