SCHEMATIC FRAMES AND READER LEARNING:
THE EFFECT OF HEADLINES
Glen L. Bleske
California State University, Chico
Department of Journalism, School of Communication
Chico, CA 95928-0600
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Manuscript submitted for presentation to the annual meeting
of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication,
Communication Theory & Methodology Division,
SCHEMATIC FRAMES AND READER LEARNING:
THE EFFECT OF HEADLINES
Newspaper headlines are conceptualized as being pre-texts that help readers
process a news story. Theory suggests that headlines work by cueing
readers who use the information to organize material in the news story
integrate the material into their long-term memories. Results from a
controlled experiment using student subjects supported the main
headlines helped readers recall information from a series of news stories.
Analysis of reader protocols provided evidence that headlines helped re
aders organize information and integrate it with prior information in
SCHEMATIC FRAMES AND READER LEARNING:
THE EFFECT OF HEADLINES
Although numerous studies have profiled newspaper readers and their uses
of newspapers (Stone, 1987), fewer studies have looked at how readers
cognitively respond to various elements of the news package (Bell, 1991).
One part of the newspaper package that has been under-researched is
effect of headlines on readers' processing of the news (Hilliard,
Typically, discussions of headlines conceptualize them as serving basic
functions of allowing the reader to easily scan a page for news and
attracting the reader to a story (Baskette, Sissor, & Brooks, 1986). The
purpose of this present study is to conceptualize news headlines in a
different way: as texts that prepare readers for processing information
the story, pre-texts that may help the reader understand the news. The
principal question for this study looks at how headlines affect reader
processing of news stories.
In light of recent attempts by the industry to develop an electronic
newspaper (Christopher, 1994; Morton, 1993), headlines may be even more
important than they are for a traditional newspaper. To make it easier
readers to enter the newspaper, section fronts of the electronic newspaper
are being designed so that they feature headlines and summary paragraphs
(Christopher, 1994). Under this design, a reader would then have an
to select the complete story. Headlines will act as electronic gates for
the reader of the future, and this study tries to explain how those
The consensus of reading research is that any device that prepares
readers for new material will increase the probability that the readers
will be able to later produce the new information (Kulhavy, Schwartz, &
Peterson, 1986). The question is untested and open, however, whether
headlines function as prereadings that would prepare the typical newspaper
reader and affect comprehension.
For this study, headlines are conceptualized as being a form of
pre-reading, or an advance organizer (AO). Ausubel (1960) conceptualized
AOs as pre-reading events that appear to help readers use background
information they already hold. These organizers bridge the gap between
what the reader already knows and what the reader needs to know.
Information in the AO becomes an anchoring post or scaffolding for ideas
that will come later (Ausubel, 1963). A series of studies by Mayer
1987, 1984, 1983, 1980, 1979) support Ausubel's theory and expand the
concept of advance organizers to concrete material such as graphic
It may be possible that, besides attracting reader attention to stories,
headlines may be bridges, text organizers that help readers process
Research on Headlines. Research on the effects of newspaper headlines has
been mixed, and there have been only a few studies. In 1953, Tannebaum
complained that almost no research had investigated the psychological
effects of headlines. In 1963, other researchers (MacLean, & Kao) noted
that although the effects of page design and headline typeface had been
subjects of extensive research, the effects of headline content on
newspaper readers had undergone little analysis. In 1991, Hilliard found
that little had changed since 1963: the psychological effects of
headlines remained an unknown factor.
Yet, the overall evidence suggests that headlines do play an important
role in readers' information processing. For example, headlines can
attitudes. Headlines that emphasized "bad war news" during World War II
were more effective in instigating a positive attitude toward
in the war effort (Allport & Lepkin, 1943) than were headlines with
positive news. One early study (Deutschmann, 1956) found that headlines
serve as cues for readers as they seek interesting stories. Headlines
ract attention or guide selection, but they also influence decoding of
message, according to Tannebaum (1955), who reported in 1953 that the
positive or negative slant of headlines affected how readers judged the
guilt or innocence of an accused criminal in a news story.
In a similar experiment measuring how readers respond to headlines that
contain innuendo about a person, a sociology study (Wegner, Wenzlaff,
Kerker, & Beattie, 1981) found that subjects rated the protagonist more
positively when the headline was neutral, while they rated the person
negative way when the headline contained innuendo or incrimination.
study by Leventhal and Gray (1991) found that innuendos in headlines
effect on memory or attitudes toward a crime victim, the accused, or the
criminal's sentencing. But, it appears that the sensational story
topics--rape and abuse--may have skewed the memory tests.
Contrary to Leventhal and Gray (1991), Pasternack (1987) found that
libelous statements in a headline and story led people to judge a man
likely to be a thief. In comparing the effects of libel in the story
the headline, Pasternack found that the libelous headline showed a greater
effect in increasing judgments of guilt. In discussing his results,
Pasternack (1987) made an important point: In the real world, headlines
may be even more important than text because readers often will look
at a headline, skipping the story or skimming it. Such superficial
attention to the headline is likely to increase the effect of the headline.
In investigating the negative effects of ethnic references in crime
reporting, Winkel (1990) found evidence that after reading a series of 40
headlines, subjects were more likely to overestimate the number of
committed by an ethnic group other than the one to which the subject
belonged. Winkel (1990) suggested that headline readers used information
in headlines to make generalizations about behavior of ethnic group
members, forming stereotypical judgments about a group of people based on
the negative characteristic emphasized in the headline.
Headlines are so powerful that the topic of the summary has a greater
affect than the slant in forming readers' attitudes toward a candidate
(Geer, & Kahn, 1993). Geer and Kahn suggested that this "surprising"
amount of influence may be due to readers' attitudes being primed by
certain topics. Headlines, they said, may guide readers' choosing certain
information to encode. Thus, headlines affect what people learn.
Overall, research on newspaper headlines supports the idea that headlines
have an effect on readers. Winship and Allport (1943) appeared to be
when they argued that newspaper headlines create images in the minds of
readers and these images have important psychological effects on
Process of Reading a Headline. To study how readers process headlines,
Perfetti, Beverly, Bell, Rodgers, and Faux (1987) completed six
to test whether textual space constraints imposed on headlines affected
the comprehension process. The researchers noted that the Spartan
to headline content--the omission of verbs and articles in
headlines--created syntax that challenged a reader to interpret the
meaning. They hypothesized that instead of parsing headlines as if a
headline were a sentence, a reader would heavily favor problem-solving
techniques while processing a headline.
By using a series of ambiguous headlines, the researchers (Perfetti et
al., 1987) found that subjects parsed headlines in the same way that
comprehend other written language. Overall, headline comprehension
very difficult, and yet readers could not overcome their reading habits
use shortcuts or other knowledge even when those other strategies
have been an advantage. Ambiguous headlines took longer to read not
because there were multiple meanings to choose from but because it took
longer to achieve any meaning. Readers looked at syntactic structure
rather than semantic plausibility.
In one of their experiments (Perfetti et al, 1987), the researchers found
that time to read a sentence was longer when preceded by an ambiguous
headline than an unambiguous headline. The researchers suggested that a
reprocessing effect--readers had to reread the sentence because it did
meet the expectations influenced by the headline--accounts for the
processing time. This finding suggests that headlines can affect the
processing time for reading a news story, and that there is a strong link
etween a headline and the material that follows.
Schematic Framing. Underlying the theoretical work of Mayer and Ausubel
in promoting advance organizers as learning devices is the need to
how organizers work. Ausubel (1963) tied his ideas of cognitive
to Bartlett's ideas (1932) that "schema," a mental frame based on
knowledge, was an organizing structure. Geer and Kahn (1993), too,
the broad idea of schema theory to explain the priming result that
The positive effects of various text features on reader comprehension
have been explained through schema theory (e.g., Beck et al, 1991).
Valencia, Greer, and Wardrop (1991, p. 144) have declared that the
of schema theory on understanding reading comprehension "has been
short of revolutionary." Schema, according to various scholars,
that what a reader stores in memory is determined by a type of
process that is similar to a knowledge frame (Alba & Hasher, 1983).
frame selects or even alters a person's experience so that the
representation of the experience that is stored makes sense and is
consistent with other experiences. Schema activates a reader's prior
knowledge, which aids interpretation of new information (Alba & Hasher,
1983). Generally, schema refers to the general knowledge that a person
holds about a subject matter, event, or experience. In general, schema
theories hypothesize that prior knowledge that is related to new
experiences helps improve acquisition, retention, and retrieval of new
information (Alba & Hasher, 1983).
Biocca (1991) has proposed a theory of schematic frames for the processing
of television, based on the idea that viewers construct mental models of
information. To understand memory and processing, Biocca outlined a
framework for studying viewers' representations of media messages.
Although he applied his work directly to television commercials for
political candidates, the idea of semantic frames should apply to the
mental models readers construct as they engage a text.
A reader forms a mental model of the meaning of a news story based on the
model presented by the editor who wrote the headline, on the model
by the writer of the story, on the abilities and knowledge of the
and on the mental states of the reader as the reading goes on. While
words on the page may be static and fixed, the meaning in the mind of
reader constantly changes (Biocca, 1991).
Mental models are useful in thinking about the ways that readers build
models of language (McNamara, Miller, & Bransford, 1991). According to
theories (Johnson-Laird, 1983, van Dijk & Kintsch, 1983), readers
text at least two ways: at the propositional level (propositions
least one noun and predicate; they are the smallest unit of knowledge that
can stand as a separate assertion); and by constructing mental models that
are "analogous in structure to the events, situations, or layouts de
scribed in the text" (McNamara et al., 1991, p. 493). Mental models do
retain verbatim text structures, but they can help recall of events,
relevant places, prominent characters, or objects associated with main
characters (McNamara et al., 1991).
Biocca's approach was to develop a theoretical model that specifies "the
high-level semantic `programs' that appear to be operative in the
processing" of the media message (Biocca, 1991, p.41). He proposed that a
selection of cognitive procedures, or schematic frames, were active in
generating the mental models. These frames access a person's schemata.
"They are frames because each extracts and arranges specific
from the semantic frames of the message. Schematic frames are
processes that organize application of the viewer's schemata to the
semantic frames (codes) of the . . . message" (Biocca, 1991, p. 41).
The frames, which represent psychological operations, were based on
research and theory associated with psycholinguistics, discourse
processing, and persuasion research (Biocca, 1991). Some of their
properties are that the various frames work at the same time while working
out the meaning from the words. What happens in one frame may
what happens in another frame. Biocca (1991, p. 42) called working
meaning the act of "calculating semantic values from the codes." The
semantic values in the various frames change repeatedly as a message is
processed. The frames proposed (Biocca, 1991) included: 1)
frames, 2) "Possible world" frames, 3) Actant or agent frames, 4)
of view frames, 5) Narrative frames, 6) Ideological frames, and 7)
After reading a headline, a person should have filled in these various
frames, which begin to alter and change as the reader engages a text.
These frames appear to be similar to the mental structures that Ausubel
(1963) described as influencing meaningful learning. Despite the
studies of advance organizers, little effort has been made to describe
structures created by AOs. Biocca's theory (1991) provides a way for
understanding the function of pretext. AOs, by providing a schematic
for a text, may help the reader make inferences about situations, people,
and objects that appear in a text.
This present study concerns itself with one basic theoretical question:
How do pretext messages--in this case, headlines--interact with a text
Numerous studies show that students learn more from text plus
illustrations than from text alone (Mayer, 1989). In developing a
for headlines, it is useful to note that headlines are similar to
illustrations. In fact, Waller (1979) developed the concept of "access
structures" to describe the spatial and typographic cues that helped
readers access and read text. Those structures include illustrations,
headlines, summaries, boxed materials, and even different typographic
settings. Headlines appear to be a specific case of a general example of
Integration of Theories. The goal of this present study is to apply
Ausubel's (1963) theory of advance organizers to newspaper headlines. If
headlines are AOs, they should produce evidence of meaningful
Ausubel (1963) stated that meaningful learning occurs when new ideas
integrated with existing cognitive structures. Advance organizers
bring about that integration, according to Ausubel (1963). An AO
the surface those concepts already held in a reader's mind, familiar
concepts that will help the reader understand the new material to be read
(Ausubel, 1963). If the reader's cognitive structure does not hold
concepts that are relevant to learning the new material, the AO
the needed concepts. The AO is an anchor, a scaffold, a framework for
reader. Thus, a headline, if it is an AO, introduces material to be
learned, and it prepares the reader for understanding the text that will
Modeling the theory. Figure 1 illustrates the various conditions that
influence the effectiveness of headlines in helping a reader to learn
a news story. Information from the headline organizes the material
the text in working memory and integrates the new material with prior
knowledge held in long-term memory. This process of organization and
integration occurs repeatedly and often along with repeated connections
with long-term memory, where a reader's schematic frame shifts and
as the reader comprehends the text (Mayer, 1989).
Insert Figure 1 about here
The frames become embedded in other frames or include other frames as new
material is processed. Successful organization and integration leads
increased learning because the new material is accessible and
the reader (Mayer, 1989). Of course, the effects of the headlines and
text also are mediated by the characteristics and states of the reader.
A headline by virtue of its typographic prominence and placement above a
story provides strong cues for cognitive processes and monitors
of reading and comprehension (van Dijk, 1986). An effective headline
provides a way of organizing the concepts that are being learned.
Organization occurs in short-term memory, where material is made available
from the senses to be integrated with prior knowledge held in
memory. Without organization of the new material, the reader's
haphazard and inefficient (Mayer, 1989). The effective headline helps the
reader integrate concepts from the news story. This implies that a
schematic model formed after reading the headline is based on the
connections between the information in short-term memory and prior
knowledge. The assumption is that the headline provides the reader with
material for building a schematic model that is relevant to the text.
Headlines, even when they are written in Spartan language, have clear
effects on newspaper readers. They can affect text organization and
integration. By affecting mental processes, they can influence learning,
attitudes, and inferences such as judgments of guilt. Although they
not meet the classical definition of an advance organizer (Ausubel,
1963), headlines may provide a frame that aids readers.
The present study uses repeated measures and random assignment to control
for environmental and individual differences and to focus on the
headlines. Further, the design will call for control of various message
variables known to influence learning--length, topic, order--and for
control of prior knowledge that individuals bring to the experiments.
Theory leads to the following hypotheses:
H) Subjects will recall significantly more information from a news
story with a headline than from one without a headline.
If newspaper headlines function as advance organizers, they should produce
evidence of meaningful learning. Ausubel (1963) states that meaningful
learning occurs when new ideas are integrated with existing cognitive
structures. Such integration can be measured by comparing aided recall
scores for subjects who receive text preceded by a headline and
without a headline.
It would be useful to investigate the semantic frames of readers under two
conditions: text with a headline and a text without a headline. According
to Biocca's theory (1991) of semantic framing, a reader's semantic frame
will change as the reader fills in details from the text. If readers
a different starting point (headline vs. no headline), the details in
various frames should be different, with the headline condition
a more highly integrated schematic frame.
Schema theory in general implies that schemata help readers make
inferences, both correct and wrong, about the text they are reading. The
expectation of the present study is that reader protocols would reveal
headlines affect the kinds of information that people will process and
store in their memories. This leads to a research question:
R) Will headlines make a difference in the schematic frames of subjects?
If headlines make information processing easier for the reader, it should
be measurable by comparing the protocols of subjects who receive
and those who do not read headlines before engaging a text.
The aim of the following experiment was a simple one: to test whether a
headline helped readers process a news story. In other words, can
headlines work as advance organizers? The experiment looked at how
headlines affect readers' memory of a news story. In the main part of the
experiment, subjects read news stories with and without headlines
their reading times were recorded and used as the dependent variable.
The second part of this study was exploratory and used reader-generated
protocols to analyze differences in the readers' memories according to
whether they read a story with a headline or one without a headline.
Subjects and sampling. The subjects for this experiment were 36 undergraduate
enrolled in the School of Journalism at a major state university.
The subjects were
volunteers who received extra credit in one of their journalism classes
in a volunteer subject pool. The average age of subjects was 20.2
years, 80% were female,
and 94% were white. There was one African-American and one Native American in
Materials. An effort was made to make the news stories and headlines
consistent with the
real world of newspapers. Materials for this experiment were a stimuli package
stories and headlines along with a test questionnaire.
Four stimuli news stories were selected from the local news sections of the
Oregonian, a well-known newspaper of quality published on the Pacific
Appendix). Multiple stories were chosen to limit the possibility that some
of one story might influence the results. Further, exposure to
multiple stories mimics
the natural reading environment. People tend to read more than one
news story at a
sitting. It was hoped that multiple stories would make the laboratory
The selection of the stimuli stories was not random. The stories were
the first two weeks of October 1992, which was chosen because of the
About 40 stories were selected from this time period based on their
content. The main
attributes were that the story have information that was unfamiliar
to students in our
geographical area, that the stories have information that was
learnable (such as election
stories), and that the stories be of adequate length, about 200-300
Story topics were chosen that focused on issues of low involvement that were
Oregon. This geographic limitation was designed as a control for
the prior knowledge that
a typical college student would have about the information that would be tested
memory questions. Government action and elections were considered
desirable stories for
the experiment because their content is strongly associated with the
type of information
provided by newspapers that is suitable for reader learning. On the
other hand, feature
stories, editorials, and other types of entertainment content (such
as sports) were
considered to be beyond the scope of this study.
The 40 stories were reduced to eight stories. The main criterion for reduction
on the qualitative judgment of the experimenter, who decided whether a story
generate an adequate number of meaningful questions for the memory test
and how well the
story fit into a pattern of news representation. From this list of
eight, four were
randomly selected for this experiment: the water story, the Hispanic
story, the sign
story, and the fishing story.
Each of the four stories had two treatments: with and without a headline, for a
eight stimuli. The headlines were written in a style typical of
modern newspapers: a
two-line main head along with a two-line subhead in smaller type (see
experts judged that the stories and headlines represented typical
news stories. Each
judge received the four stories plus 16 other distracter stories and
judged them on a
scale of 0-10, with 10 signifying that the story represented the kind
of story that is
typically printed in a newspaper. Each scored a perfect 10, while
some of the distracter
stories scored a 0.
The news stories were printed on 8 1/2 by 11-inch paper to look as if they were
photocopies of real news stories. They included bylines, datelines, and
multiple legs of
10-point type. The headlines were printed on separate sheets of 8
1/2 by 11-inch paper.
The main head was 30-
point type and the subhead was 16-point (see Appendix).
As suggested by previous experiments, headlines are unlikely to have effects on
under four conditions: 1) if the subjects have previous knowledge or
have formed opinions
about the subject (Tannebaum, 1953); 2) if the topic of the news
story is highly involving
or more likely to increase the reader's attention (Mayer, 1989); 3) if the
not potentially meaningful (Mayer, 1989); and 4) if the reader does
not need help in
organizing the material (Mayer, 1989). The selection of news stories
was designed to
control for the first three of these possible conditions.
A pre-test of the stories included a focus group session with seven students who
that the stories were unknown to them, that the stories were boring (low
and that the stories contained material that they believed was worth
A series of four packets--each containing the four news stories, half with and
without headlines--were prepared so that each subject read a total of
four messages, two
from each condition (with or without a headline). Story order in
the packets was based on
Wagenaar's (1969) method for constructing N X N "digram balanced" Latin
Table 4.1). The packets were designed as a between-subject
control-manipulation was designed to balance potential topic, order, and
effects, which were tested in a post-hoc analysis.
Insert Table 1 about here
General directions for the experiment informed subjects that they would read a
news stories, and that after reading the news stories they would be
asked about what they
read. The directions emphasized that they should read the news
stories carefully, but at
a normal speed.
Measurement. A questionnaire, also on 8 1/2 by 11-inch sheets of paper,
multiple-choice questions. (five for each story). The last page asked
basic demographic data: age, gender, race (see Appendix B).
A series of 32 questions (eight per story) were written. Each question focused
important information central to the stories, which was confirmed
through a pre-test of
the questionnaire. There was one correct answer for each question:
To eliminate amb
iguity, the answer was an exact or nearly exact passage from the text.
alternatives--both semantically and structurally different from the
constructed for each question. A fourth alternative (to discourage
guessing) was "I am
not sure or I do not remember."
The questions and stimuli were pretested by a group of seven subjects, all from
volunteer subject pool. Questions that were answered correctly or
wrongly by more than
five people were discarded or rewritten as needed to reach the goal
of 20 questions for
The 20 chosen questions were carefully constructed to capture those ideas that
related to the major concepts of the stories. Mayer (1989, pp. 48-49)
notes that valid
major dependent variables in experiments designed to measure
learning "must involve recall
of conceptual information, retention of material in verbatim format, and/or
problem-solving transfer performance rather than the more traditional
measures of overall
amount recalled and/or overall performance on comprehension tests."
To assure that the 20 questions did reflect important concepts in the stories,
judges, taken from the volunteer subject pool, read each of the four
stories and then
rated the 20 questions along with 12 additional questions for their
importance to the
story. A bi-polar 7-point scale, (Not Important Idea vs. Important
Idea) was used. None
of the 12 additional question was rated as more important than the
20 used in this
experiment. The lowest score among the questions used was 3.75, slightly
below the middle
score of 4, while the highest score for the questions not chosen was 3.25.
Another pre-test was used to assure the validity of the questionnaire. A group
judges, all professional journalists, read each of the headlines and
the questionnaire to
determine whether any headline provided an answer to any of the
questions. The judges
determined that none of the headlines provided information that
helped answer the
questionnaire, except for one, which was rewritten. The judges also noted
that they had
no prior knowledge that helped them to answer the questions.
Each subject answered all 20 questions. The reliability score for 20 questions
Procedure. Each subject received four news stories to read. Subjects were
assigned to one of the four stimuli packets. Instructions emphasized
that the subjects
were to read the stories as if they were carefully reading a
newspaper. Subjects were
told that after reading the stories they would be asked some
questions about what they
remembered about the stories.
Subjects also were told that they had a 30-minute time limit in reading the
time limit was determined by the pretest). A time limit was necessary because
have shown that by slowing reading speed, comprehension increases
(Kintsch & Vipond,
1979). The goal was to have the subjects read carefully, but at a
normal rate of speed.
After reading the four stories, the subjects returned their stimuli packets to
experimenter. The average reading time was about 16 minutes. Subjects
were then given a
questionnaire (Appendix B) to complete, and the order of questions
was the same as the
story order in the stimuli packet. The questionnaires were marked so
experimenter knew which of the four stimuli packets the subject received, but
Data analysis. The dependent variable, Memory, was based on the number of
answers to the multiple- choice answers. Each subject contributed a
score from 0 to 10
for each condition. A paired t-test was used to determine if the
significantly more key ideas from a news story with a headline as
opposed to a story
without a headline. The conventional significance level of .05 was
Main analysis. The mean score for the headline condition was 5.472 with a
standard deviation of 1.934. The mean score for the no-headline condition
was 4.889 with a standard deviation of 1.997. The paired t-test, with a
difference in the means of .5833 and a standard deviation of 1.811 and
standard error of .302, indicated that the t-value was 1.93 with 35
of freedom. The one-tailed probability was .03.
Order effects. The experiment was designed to allow a post-hoc analysis
of effects that might be due to story order and the repetition of the
stimulus condition (headline or no headline). The analysis indicated no
evidence of a systematic bias.
Discussion. The null hypothesis is rejected and Hypothesis 1 is
supported: Headlines did help readers recall significantly more information
from news stories. Headlines appeared to help readers organize
information. Headlines did more than the traditional functions (Baskette
et al., 1986) of attracting attention, summarizing the story, helping
the news page, depicting the mood of the story, depicting the tone of the
newspaper, and providing typeface relief. Headlines helped readers
and remember information from the news story.
Materials for protocol analysis. After a rest and particapting in a
distracter task, the subjects read two more stories. The materials for
this part of the experiment--instructions, headlines, news stories, and
questions--were presented on computer screens of IBM-PCs and generated
Micro Experimental Laboratory (MEL) software. The stimuli included
first three paragraphs from two news stories, an election story and a
hospital story, along with a headline for each story (See Appendix). The
stories, a campaign story and a hospital story, were written by the
experimenter, who based them on actual news stories from a regional
Each subject read the two stories, one with a headline and the other
without. There were four stimuli created: Story 1 with headline; Story 1
without headline; Story 2 with headline; Story 2 without headline.
treatment groups, with two stories each, were created so that story
and condition were counterbalanced.
After the second story, an open-ended question appeared on the screen.
Subjects were given a sheet of paper to record their answer to the
question, which asked them to retell the story in their own words. The
goal of asking the open-ended question was to require the subjects to
report their memory of the SECOND story they read. For half the
this story would be preceded by a headline, for the other half, there
be no headline.
Instructions for the experiment told subjects that they would have to
answer some questions about the stories they read. Before each headline
appeared on the screen, subjects were asked to carefully read the
After the headline, instructions told subjects that they would read a news
story, one paragraph at a time.
Equipment. IBM-PC computers were used along with MEL software. The
software is well-known in psychology and is often used in experiments.
Measurement. The headline or no headline treatment was the independent
variable of this experiment. Two judges, blind to the treatment
conditions, analyzed the content of subjects' protocols. There were nine
protocols (one from each subject) available for each of the four
or 18 protocols for each of the treatments (with headline or without
headline). Contents of the protocols were analyzed by proposition (van
Dijk, & Kintsch, 1983; Kintsch, & Vipond, 1979): Propositions contain
least one noun and predicate; they are the smallest unit of knowledge
can stand as a separate assertion. The judges then used a scale
by Cooke (1994), and modified for this experiment, for categorizing
propositions as schematic frames. Overall, in coding, the judges
86% of the propositions. The disagreements by the judges were resolved
Protocol analysis. An analysis of the protocols also was conducted. The
protocols had been expected to provide information about the
mental models of readers who read a headline before writing the protocol
and those readers who did not have a headline. Coding of the
based on schematic frame theory (Biocca 1991) using a system proposed in
A preliminary analysis of the protocols allowed for the creation of a
coding sheet that condensed the categories for schematic frames to the
* Possible World frame, where readers assign characters or actions to some
possible world (e.g., this story took place in Portland).
* Discoursive frame, where readers determine that a story is about a topic
(e.g., the story is about feuds) or genre (e.g., this story is a tragedy).
* Agent frames, where readers state the role of agents, describe them in
some way, discuss their internal states, or state the motivations or
of the agents. Agents in this case can be institutions and objects as
* Point of view frames, where the reader uses a statement that
acknowledges that the reader is viewing the world through some agent or
other point of view. This category was eliminated from the judges'
sheets because of the limited nature of the protocols, which contained
statements reflecting a point of view other than as a third-person
someone who appears to be not really involved with the action.
* Narrative frames, where the viewer references either an "event" (a
single action that has occurred within the story) or an episode (the
relation among a series of events or the consequence of an event).
* Ideological frames and Self-schematic frames were eliminated from this
analysis because there were no examples of these type of frames in the
Thus, coding of the protocols was limited to the following frames:
Possible World Spatial, Possible World Character, Discoursive Topic,
Discoursive Genre, Agent Role, Agent Description, Agent Motivation, Agent
Internal State, Narrative Event, Narrative Episode. Further, each
the frames was given one of the following subcodes that described the
dynamics of the organization of the message within the frame (Cooke,
These included: Non-judgmental, which was the default coding and the most
likely coding for a proposition that simply related a fact direct from the
text; Confused, which was the subcode for mistakes by the reader;
Value-laden, in which the comment reflected some negative or positive
judgment; and Inferred, which described those comments that were not
explicit in the text.
Post-hoc analysis of protocols. Coding of the protocols led to the
classification of 602 propositions: 312 for the headline condition, 290
the non-headline condition. About 80% of the propositions mimic the text
of the original stories. Of interest in this analysis are the 114 p
ropositions (about 19%) that represent the schema-based inferences of the
In this section of the analysis, numbers mean less than the qualitative
insights. A clear pattern emerges from the coding: subjects who
no headline provided protocols that recalled the stories in ways
from subjects who read a headlined story. The headlines clearly
the mental models formed by the readers.
These differences are seen in the following examples. They are taken
from two of the 18 subjects who read the story about political
candidates. One reader had no headline. The text of this reader's
Republican candidate (male) Meeker, 67, supports free trade with
Mexico. He says it will create new jobs for the region. When asked
a group of Hispanics (Hispanics for Unity) if he would remember
once he was elected, he said he would consider hiring a Spanish
speaker as a member of his staff.
(Female) Democratic candidate Kelley, 35, is opposed to free trade
with Mexico because it would cause American jobs to be lost, and
unions would suffer. She said she hopes labor will speak up at
election time as it usually does.
This protocol was the most complete of any, recalling and listing 27 facts
of the 44 in the story (average recall was 12 facts). This organization
was typical for the nine subjects who read a non-headlined version of
political story. Five subjects used this organization: listing all
aspects of one candidate and then all the aspects of the other
The other four subjects in the non-headline condition borrowed the
organization of the story, which directly contrasted the candidates by list
ing one candidate and then the other and then back to the first and
finishing with the second.
The following text is the protocol of a reader who had a headline on the
It's election time and the Republicans and Democrats are sharing
their views. The Republican (Meeker) has promised Hispanics that
will be an integral part of the future. Meeker will hire a Hispanic
if elected and make sure that jobs are available for them. The
Democrat is opposed to the Republican's idea of free trade with
Mexico. The Democrat is looking after the labor groups. He promises
that their jobs are secure and that no foreigners will infiltrate
their towns. The Republican and Democrat agree that the real views
will come out on election day. The majority's voice will be
This protocol began with the inference that it was election time. None of
the non-headline protocols made that inference, while five of the nine
with the headline did and did so at the start of the protocol.
the headline did not mention that the story is an election story, it
say that a candidate was seeking votes. Yet this is not much more
descriptive of an election than was the first paragraph of the story, which
strongly implied that it was election time. The main subjects of the
stories were introduced as candidates for Congress and as foes.
It appeared that for some of the headline readers, the headline helped
them access a schematic frame for elections and this frame helped them
organize the story. But, as suggested by Mayer (1987, 1984), advance
organizers, which headlines appear to be, affect the type of information
recalled. Likewise, research on mental models indicated that they
good structures for recalling verbatim text, but instead helped readers
integrate themes and ideas into established schema (McNamara et al.,
Therefore, subjects are more likely to make inferences representative of
schema intrusions when the headline works as an advance organizer
Mayer  called assimilative encoding), while subjects without the
advance organizer are more likely to recall facts such as ages, names,
gender (what Mayer called additive encoding).
Without a headline, readers began the story with a task orientation: "I
will memorize facts because I know that this is an experiment and I
required to recall facts." Instead of an election schematic frame, it
appeared that the readers of the non-headline story either used the
organization of the story or focused on the main agents in the story: a
Republican, a Democrat, Hispanics and Labor.
The other thing that happened was that seven of the nine headline
protocols of the election story made some sort of value-laden comment about
the agents in the stories, while only one such comment was generated in
the non-headline version. It should be noted that the headline
no value-laden information.
The influence of schematic frames also was apparent in the transplant
story. The headline in this case stated that a feud has ended with an
agreement. A schematic frame for feuds was used by some of the headline
readers in their protocols. Only three of nine in the non-headline
condition mentioned the animosity among hospitals, which is mentioned in
the final paragraph of the story, while seven of nine in the headline
condition mentioned the animosity. Further, the three in the
condition mentioned animosity at the end of their protocols, the same
organization as in the story, while in the headline condition, three of
protocols mentioned the animosity in the first paragraph.
Also, two other protocols in the headline condition began with a phrase
taken directly from the story, "collaborative effort." This phrase,
mentioned by no one in the non-headline condition, was linked directly to
the animosity paragraph, where it served as a bridge between the
that there is animosity and why there is animosity.
Analysis of the protocols suggests that a schematic model formed after
reading the headline was based on the connections between the
in the reader's short-term memory and prior knowledge. The headline
appeared to provide the reader with material for building a schematic
that is relevant to the text.
Schematic frames. According to Biocca's theory (1991) of semantic
framing, a reader's semantic frame will change as the reader fills in
details from the text. If readers have a different starting point
(headline vs. no headline), the details in the various frames should be
different, with the headline condition exhibiting a more highly
In this study, it was hoped that schematic frame theory would provide a
method for quantitatively indicating differences among protocols from
readers of headline and non-headline stories. But because of the short
length of the stories, there were limited findings for the framing of
stories between conditions. See Table 3 for a chart of the codings.
Insert Table 2 about here
The coding for semantic frames describes the types of inferences that
readers made in their protocols. In the hospital and the campaign
(especially in the campaign story), readers were more likely to infer
cause-and-effect relationships in their narrative frames when they were
furnished the headline. And, in the candidates' story only, readers
made inferences about descriptions of the agents at a much higher rate
in the non-headline story.
Two interesting patterns emerge when the campaign and hospital story are
compared. Because the campaign story has much more description of the
agents, readers who did not have a headline focused on description (96
compared to 62 for the headline condition). It appears that readers who
lacked a headline and thus a clue about how to organize the story
on the text for a clue and fixated on agent descriptions as an
device. But in the hospital story, without as much description and
stract agents (institutions vs. people in the campaign story) readers
more likely to focus on the narrative frame of the story, regardless
The election story, for example, included the following inferences from
the headline condition: readers described work shipped to Mexico as
the Democratic candidate was motivated by her support of labor groups, and
she talked to labor groups because she wanted their votes. Nothing like
this appeared in the non-headline protocols, where the most common
inference was the fact that the Republican in hiring a Spanish-speaking
staffer might hire a Mexican.
With longer news stories, the results of the schematic frame coding might
have been more extensive and allowed for a more rigorous analysis.
Subjects appeared to be unwilling to stray beyond a straight narrative of
the story. About 98% of the comments were from the point of view of a
third person who has no role in the story. A more involving, longer
(involvement was controlled for in this experiment) might have
richer differences in protocols.
SUMMARY AND CONCLUSIONS
Headlines helped readers recall information from a news story, and they
also affected the type of information that readers process and store
According to a post-hoc analysis, headlines led subjects to create mental
models of the stories that differed from the models formed by subjects
did not have headlines precede the stories. The differences in the
models were manifested by organization and content of the protocols.
general, subjects who read headlines appeared more likely to take
from the headline in organizing information from the story and
prior knowledge with knowledge from the stories.
A theory of news headlines would suggest that headlines help readers frame
the news they are about to read. This type of framing also can be
inferred from previous studies that suggested that headlines affected how
people judged the subjects of stories, such as the guilt or innocence
accused criminal (Winkel, 1990; Pasternack, 1987; Tannebaum, 1953). The
results of the current study go beyond the concept that headlines bias
thinking about the news subjects and suggest that headlines can affect
readers remember from the stories. This is a new finding and adds
understanding to the role of the headline in newspapers.
This study provides some clues about how headlines help readers process
information. Evidence from the reader protocols supports Mayer's
theoretical explanation (1987, 1979) that AOs build external connections
between the reader's prior knowledge and the text, integrating
information with the reader's existing knowledge. The protocols
numerous examples of readers' real world knowledge intruding into the
protocols when a headline is part of the news. Aided by headlines,
integrated the story information, which led to inferences and a mental
model that reflected the "real world experience" of the subjects.
When news stories were preceded by headlines, readers were more likely to
include inferences and value judgments about the main agents of the
stories. Instead of just providing facts from the story, the readers
showed that the facts had become integrated with information that had
stored in their long-term memories. It appears that without a headline
help integration and organization, some subjects memorized details.
The analysis of the protocols according to Biocca's theory of schematic
frames (1991) was exploratory. It appeared successful, creating a
picture of the mental processes affected by a headline. The
of each proposition of the reader protocols suggests that headlines create
schematic frames for readers and the frames affect what readers remember
about the story. The pattern of memory supports Biocca's contention
theoretical model could specify the cognitive procedures, or schematic
frames, that are active in generating mental models. These frames
person's schemata and help organize the information from the semantic
frames of the message (Biocca, 1991).
Biocca's schematic frames allowed a quantitative analysis of the readers'
protocols. The analysis picked up differences between the two news
used: one that had abstract agents (hospitals) and more concrete agents
(political candidates). In the hospital protocols, the agents are
in a spatial world by all the subjects, who tended to remember a
of events influenced by headline cues. But when the agent is a
candidate, the spatial world is less likely to be recalled while
descriptions of the agents are more likely. When a headline is
fewer text-based descriptions are present, but there is an increase in
descriptions that are based on reader inferences about political
From this study, it is possible to sketch a theory for newspaper
headlines. A headline has typographic prominence and placement above a
story and provides strong cues for cognitive processes. An effective
headline provides a way of organizing the concepts that a reader needs to
understand a news story. This organization occurs in short-term
where material is made available from the senses to be integrated with
prior knowledge held in long-term memory. The effective headline helps
reader integrate concepts from the news story and a schematic model is
formed while reading the headline. The headline provides the reader
material for building a schematic model that is relevant to the text.
Limitations. This study has four major limitations. First is the
challenge to validity created by the laboratory setting. Second is the
nature of the stimuli, which, despite efforts to make the stories and
headlines read as real newspaper stories, have low ecological validity
compared with a real newspaper. The third major limitation is the use of
student subjects, who are very different from the average newspaper
Future studies--in the field using real newspapers--may yield interesting
The fourth major limitation rests on the sample of messages. Although two
messages were used to limit the possibility that an idiosyncrasy of any
one message was responsible for the results (Jackson, 1992), the
sample was not random nor was it designed to be representative of
Other limitations affect the understanding of the results. There may be
idiosyncracies in the messages, or the manipulations, or the subjects
led to the positive and negative results reported in this study. For
example, the headlines used may be more effective than the typical
used in a newspaper, or the content of the news stories may be a critical
factor in bringing about the reported effects.
Future studies. As newspapers move toward their electronic futures, the
role of headlines may become more important as readers are faced with
increased number of messages. Further studies of headlines could
other content features of the headline summaries that might make them
effective in helping readers learn. The current study suggested that
is a strong linkage between the headline and the lead paragraph as they
help the reader form a mental model of the story. Timely probes,
Biocca's schematic frame theory (1991), could unravel how different
message features affect reader processing of the news.
Final summary. This study supports the general idea, echoed in many of
the studies involving headlines: Readers take cues from headline,
are more important than journalists have thought. Although this study
limitations, it clearly indicates that headlines help readers organize
stories and learn from those stories. Newspaper headlines appear to
function as organizers, which integrate new ideas with readers' existing
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Latin Square Design for Experiment 1
Story Topic and Condition Order
(H= with head; NH=no head)
Reading order 1st 2nd 3rd 4th
1 A B C D
NH H NH H
2 B D A C
NH H NH H
3 C A D B
NH H NH H
4 D C B A
NH H NH H
A = Water Shortage Story
B = Hispanic Protest Story
C = Sign Ordinance Story
D = Fishing Proposal Story
Number of Propositions by Schematic Frames by Story and Treatment
Head No Head Head No Head
n=9 n=9 n=9 n=9
Event 68 58 41 50
Episode 1 7 0 4
Inferred 20 10 35 11
Confused 4 3 3 3
Descriptive 18 17 62 96
Inferred 4 0 17 7
Confused 2 5 2 2
(Inferred) 0 0 7 0
Spatial 9 9 5 5
* Coded 588 propositions, another 14 propositions were not relevant to the