The relevance of attention for selecting news content. An eye-tracking study on attention patterns in the reception of print and online media

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The relevance of attention for selecting news content. An eye-tracking study on attention patterns in the reception of print and online media
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  The relevance of attention for selecting newscontent. An eye-tracking study on attentionpatterns in the reception of print and online media HANS-JÜRGEN BUCHER and PETER SCHUMACHER AbstractThis article argues that a theory of media selectivity needs a theory of attention, because attention to a media stimulus is the starting point of each process of reception. Attention sequences towards media stimuli     pages of newspapers and online-newspapers  were analyzed by eye-track-ing patterns from three different perspectives. First, attention patterns werecompared under varying task conditions. Second, different types of mediawere tested. Third, attention sequences towards different forms of newswith different design patterns were compared. Attention was seen as a pre-requisite for reception: Its selective functions for these processes are espe-cially important. Reception itself was examined within an action-theoreti-cal framework and therefore described as a form of interaction betweenrecipient and the media. Eye-tracking data were used as indicators of atten-tion. Starting with a hypothesis on the impact of different media such as printed newspapers and online newspapers on the agenda-setting process of their audience, the study examined how the type of media and the form of news influences attention and selectivity. Our findings showed that visual cues such as salient photos or graphics and information hierarchies sig-nalled by design and layout guide attention processes, not as an automatic process driven from the bottom up, but as stimuli for an active, intention-driven selection process. The results indicate that the form of news affectsthese patterns of interactive attention more than the medium itself.Keywords: reception, selection, attention, eye-tracking, newspaper, onlinenewspaper Theoretical fundamentals Recent studies in mass communication research have attempted to provethat there is a difference between print and online newspapers in termsof the quality and quantity of knowledge acquisition. Tewksbury and Communications 31 (2006), 347  368 03412059/2006/031  0347DOI 10.1515/COMMUN.2006.022   Walter de Gruyter  348  Hans-Jürgen Bucher and Peter Schumacher Althaus (2000) compared the recall of newspaper topics of two differentgroups    one reading the printed version of the  New York Times  andthe other its online version    and discovered two different pattern of news selection: “online news readers were less likely to recall having readnational and political news topics than appeared in the  Times  and morelikely to recall business and other news topics” (472). In a representativesurvey of almost 1,000 respondents, Schönbach, De Waal, and Lauf (2005) ended up with a similar result: “Reading print newspapers con-tributes to the awareness of more public events and issues than usingonline newspaper does” (253). But their data also showed that this effectis dependent upon competence and experience regarding online informa-tion usage. Highly educated respondents were assumed to apply a morecarefully considered procedure of information selection and to “con-sciously look for a comprehensive overview of what is going on in theworld” (254).Regarding the rapid diffusion of the Internet as a mass medium, theseresults are judged to be of great relevance to open democratic societiesand have implications for “the long-term health of democratic nations”(Tewksbury, 2003: 694). The overall conclusion of these studies is thatthe medium from which people get their information has an impact onnews selection, with consequences for agenda setting, the fragmentationof media audiences, and public opinion. Media reception and the form of news The most common explanation for differences in news selection betweenprinted and online newspapers is the assumption that the different formsof news presentation have an impact on the patterns of selection. Incomparison with television or radio, both types of newspapers could bedescribed as a non-linear type of media, which opens a much greatervariety and more self-determined pattern of reception. Tewksbury (2003)notes that “the WWW provides audiences with substantially more con-trol over the news selection process than they enjoy with the traditionalmedia…online readers are particularly likely to pursue their own inter-ests, and they are less likely to follow the cues of news editors and pro-ducers” (694). In both online and printed newspapers the audience isexposed to a wide range of visual cues, which signal the relevance andhierarchy of topics and stories. These aspects of newspaper design havethe function of mapping “the social world for its readers” (Barnhurstand Nerone, 2001: 22). Regarding online and printed news, however,these cues are supposed to affect the reception in different ways: “Onlinenewspaper users are exposed to a smaller amount of cues compared totheir print counterparts” (Schönbach et al., 2005: 248). Taking these re-  The relevance of attention for selecting news content  349sults seriously means that selectivity has to be explained referring to aconcept of attention, which could help explain the different effects of visual cues and different forms of news. Two questions are crucial forthis kind of explanation:1. Does the form of news interact with attention and selectivity?2. Is attention voluntary or involuntary, is it dependent on goals orframes of the recipient (user-driven) or is it dependent on salience,priming, and cues of the media one is exposed to (media-driven)?The relevance of the second question results from the conflicting as-sumptions, that on the one hand the form of news should influence theselection process, whereas on the other hand competence and experiencewere assumed to operate as limiting factors. Our basis for answeringthese two questions is an action-theoretical approach to media use. Inthis framework, “media users are acting persons who interpret mediamessages on the basis of their own objectives, values and plans, and then  more or less carefully  construct their external actions” (Renckstorf and Wester, 2004: 55). From this perspective, media reception is an activeprocess of selection, on the level of different media types as well as onthe level of the content of one medium.Within an action-oriented approach we conclude that the reception of non-linear media could be described with the help of the concept of interactivity. The different approaches to disambiguate this concept canbe divided, roughly speaking, into two groups. Members of the firstgroup try to define interactivity technically, which leads to a rather wideconception. Interactivity in this perspective is defined in terms of respon-siveness. Members of the second group define interactivity on the basisof sociological or psychological theories (see Downes and McMillan,2000; McMillan, 2002; Kiousis, 2002; Bucher, 2004). Crucial for thesedefinitions is the idea of reciprocity: If it is the case that A interacts withB, it implies that B interacts with A. This definition fits all cases of Internet communication where the medium is used as a tool, such ase-mail, chat, or weblogs. But because the criterion of reciprocity doesnot fit human-computer interaction or the reception of online newspa-pers well, representatives of the latter group normally argue againstusing the term ‘interactivity’ for this kind of communication and try torestrict it to human-human interaction. To escape this dilemma, one candefine interactivity based on action theory and a theory of problem-solving in a hypertext environment (Rafaeli and Sudweeks, 1997; Niel-sen, 1993). Within this perspective, interactivity in human-computercommunication is defined as a kind of ‘as-if interactivity’: A user who iscommunicating, for example, on an Internet platform  e.g. a learning  350  Hans-Jürgen Bucher and Peter Schumacher system, an e-business platform, or an online newspaper    implies thathe interacts with the online program as if it were a real partner in a face-to-face interaction. Especially the thinking-aloud procedure has pro-vided a lot of evidence for this kind of as-if interaction (Bucher, 2004).The utterances and the behavior of the user show that interactivity inhuman-computer communication is naturally implicated as a presuppo-sition, which has real consequences for the acquirement of Web sites. Wewill try to define attention and selectivity within such a paradigm of interactivity. Furthermore, this approach can help to build a conceptualbridge between the two basic types of attention: involuntary attention,which is activated by the stimuli of the media  the form of news  andvoluntary attention, which results from the intentions and competencesof the recipients. Within this framework of an action-theoretical under-standing of media perception, we focus at a micro level on the selectivityof a reader or user during interaction with a medium. To acquire dataabout these processes, we chose an eye-tracking test setting, which givesindicators for intentional and non-intentional effects on attention. Wewill discuss the relation between eye-movements, attention, and selectiv-ity. As we see attention in a sequential, process-oriented perspective, wewill discuss findings and theories concerning different phases of atten-tion.The empirical study presented here consists of three steps:1. To find out to what extent attention patterns in response to specificmedia stimuli are driven by a recipient’s intention; test persons wereconfronted with a Web site under different task conditions (so-calledmodes of use).2. To investigate the relationship between attention patterns and dif-ferent types of media, the reception of three different forms of news-paper    the printed newspaper, the classical online newspaper, andthe digital edition  was tested with eye-tracking.3. To find out how attention patterns depend on the form of presenta-tion, we compared the perception of three different styles of onlinenews layout. Eye-movements, attention, and selectivity Eye movement research has long been used to investigate the reader’spatterns of selection and attention with regard to questions of how todesign newspaper pages (Garcia and Stark, 1991; Küpper, 1990). Be-cause these studies pursue mostly practical ends of user-friendly newspa-per design or ask for entry points and reading paths (Holsanova, Rahm,and Holmqvist, 2006), the theoretical background of the relations be-  The relevance of attention for selecting news content  351tween eye-tracking data, and perception are seldom explained. In con-trast to these sorts of media-oriented eye-tracking research, we chose anapproach which is reception-oriented. To shed light on the relation be-tween reader and media    the reception process    we return to theconcepts of attention and selection. Both of these terms are not simple,one-dimensional concepts, but multi-dimensional and closely connectedto each other. Selection could be seen as a three-dimensional conceptwhich encompasses attention, perception, and retention, all of whichhave a selecting function.  Selective attention  determines to what stimuliperception is addressed. During  selective perception,  it is decided howinformation will be processed and stored.  Selective retention  is the pro-cess in which cognitively perceived and processed information is onceagain selected for recollection (Donsbach, 2004: 147). As Neumann con-cludes from the history of psychological research traditions, attention isnot a homogeneous system, but a concept with different components andfunctions: Attention can select information for actions, inhibit behavior,reduce the complexity of stimuli, integrate stimuli for reception, andserve to specify actions (Neumann, 1992: 92  96), or it can have a selec-tive function by including certain stimuli and excluding others from fur-ther processing (Neumann, 1996: 577, 596). By interpreting our eye-tracking data, we continue this functional approach to attention andwork out some of the procedural aspects of media reception. In termsof Donsbach’s three-dimensional model of selectivity, the focus of ourstudy lies on the first aspect of selectivity, selective attention.Attention as well as selection processes are not directly open to obser-vation and are therefore constructions of the observer. Only by observ-ing a number of successive activities can we determine to what and towhat extent one pays attention or what has been selected. Eye move-ments are one indicator of these activities. As they are usually not con-trolled consciously and can also be non-intentional, we categorize themas  behavioral indicators  (comparable to mimic and gesture) in contrastto  proactive indicators  such as actions (cursor moves, scrolling, clicking,turning over a page), utterances (e.g., comments from the thinking-aloud method), or strategies of problem-solving (back navigation, re-peated reading, asking questions). Eye movements usually depend onattentional processes (Hallett, 1986: 10.22). Thus, data recorded by eye-tracking devices used in this study can be interpreted as an indicator of these selective attention sequences. An eye-tracker collects data that al-low conclusions about fixations and saccades of the eye on a given stimu-lus. Fixations are periods when the eye is relatively immobile. They indi-cate the area where attention is likely to be allocated (Rayner, 1995).Saccades are the eye’s jumps from one fixated area to the next. Percep-tion is essentially suppressed during these processes (Stark and Ellis,1981).
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