Tabloid vs. standard news _
The effects of tabloid and standard television news on
viewer evaluations, memory and arousal
Institute for Communication Research, Indiana University:
Maria Elizabeth Grabe
Ernie Pyle Hall
School of Journalism
Bloomington, IN 47405
e-mail: [log in to unmask]
phone: (812) 855-1721
School of Journalism
Dept. of Telecommunications
Dept. of Telecommunications
Submitted for presentation in the Theory and Methodology Division at the annual
meeting of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication.
Baltimore, MD, August 1998
The authors would like to thank Don Agostino (WTIU, Bloomington), Erik Bucy, Dan
Drew, Joe Ellington, Walter Gantz, Joe Hinshaw, Matt Jackson, Qian Liu, Tonya
Maxwell, Robert Potter, Nancy Schwartz, Jim Scott (WISH-TV, Indianapolis) and
George Sullivan for their help with the production of stimuli, recruitment of
subjects, and data collection.
The effects of tabloid and standard television news on
viewer evaluations, memory and arousal
The application of flamboyant video production features is primarily associated
with advertising, movies, and MTV music videos. Advances in television
production technology, however, have made the application of lavish production
features less expensive and time consuming, thereby enabling television news
producers to incorporate them into their packaging of news. At the same time,
extravagant production features have become part of what critics refer to in
their outrage against tabloid news. Tabloid news is dismissed as a sensational
and incompetent source of information where form overpowers content. A recent
content analysis on the production techniques used in standard and tabloid
television news reveals support for the accusation that tabloid news reporters
use a more flamboyant style to package their stories. This study takes the
logical next step in conducting an experiment to assess the impact of the formal
features associated with tabloid and standard news on physiological arousal,
information recognition, memory, and viewer evaluations.
Academics and practitioners are becoming increasingly vocal in expressing
their concerns about the direction of journalism in contemporary society.
Because television is a primary source of information for most Americans, the
bulk of criticism is leveled against broadcast news. Specifically, critics
express concern about the proliferation of tabloid news practices. These
concerns stretch beyond criticism of journalism ethics. Critics point out that
local television news stations are adopting tabloid news magazine production
techniques for newscasts. They call it a sensational news practice, or
"infotainment," where production style overpowers substantive information
(Bernstein, 1992; Briller, 1993; Fiske, 1992; Kurtz, 1993; Reibstein, 1994;
Rosenberg, 1989; Walters, 1988; Weiss, 1989; Zoglin, 1993). Indeed, with the
development and adoption of new technology in the television production field, a
new approach to packaging television news has evolved. Video cameras have
become more portable, allowing videographers to provide an eyewitness account of
news events. Moreover, digital video editing enables flamboyant visual effects
that traditionally have not been associated with broadcast journalism.
A recent content analysis on the prevalence of production techniques in a
tabloid ("Hard Copy") and traditional ("60 Minutes") news magazine program
produced support for the claim that tabloid news packaging marks lavish
application of camera and editing techniques (Grabe, Zhou, Barnett, 1998).
Results indicate that part of what is perceived as sensational news packaging
could be located in the application of structural features. In fact, five
production techniques (music, sound effects, slow motion, the use of flash
frames as transitions between shots, and obtrusiveness of reporter's voice tone)
were most prominently associated with the formal differences between "Hard Copy"
and "60 Minutes." Slow motion comprised 7.14 percent of "Hard Copy's" content
compared to just 0.21 percent of "60 Minutes'" content. Moreover, an instance
of slow motion occurred every 53.1 seconds on "Hard Copy," whereas "60 Minutes"
featured it once every 2279.1 seconds. Flashes of approximately five frames of
video white (inserted between two shots to create a startling effect that mimics
a camera flash) were used in 8.2 percent of all transitions between shots on
"Hard Copy" and in only 0.1 percent of transitions on "60 Minutes." Flashes
occurred every 46.5 seconds on "Hard Copy" and every 5507.9 seconds on "60
Minutes." Music was featured during 82.9 percent of "Hard Copy" segments but
only 0.4 percent of "60 Minutes" story content. Sound effects which occurred
every 83.1 seconds on "Hard Copy," happened every 4130.9 seconds on "60
Minutes." The voice tone of "Hard Copy" reporters was rated as significantly (p
< .000) more obtrusive than the voice of "60 Minutes'" reporters (Grabe, Zhou,
These findings provide some support for the claim that tabloid television
reporters are producing infotainment. Yet, the assumption that tabloid news is
less capable than standard broadcast news formats of delivering important (and
memorable) information needs further investigation. Moreover, the question
remains if viewers perceive differences in television news packaging styles.
Critics may be more aware of stylistic differences between tabloid and standard
news packaging than ordinary viewers. In an attempt to answer these questions,
tabloid and standard versions of eight television news stories were produced.
The scripts, and thus the narrative information, was exactly the same for each
version. Only production techniques (music, sound effects, slow motion, the use
of flash frames as transitions between shots, and obtrusiveness of reporter's
voice tone) were manipulated in accordance with the findings of the preceding
Providing the citizens of a democratic society with accurate and unbiased
information is an enduring journalistic goal. That may explain why critics of
journalism have, since the development of the Penny Press, focused on the
information function of journalism to publicly argue for the distinction between
proper reporting and tabloid attempts to inform the public. Many studies have
followed to distinguish between tabloid and standard news content, ignoring the
potential formal differences between these two news genres. The verdict is that
proper journalism serves as society's unbiased watchdog by focusing primarily on
meaty and timely political and economic issues while tabloid journalists openly
favor subjective techniques in their coverage of scandal, crime, human tragedy,
and other disruptions of everyday life. Consequently, the content of tabloid
news programs has been dismissed as trivial "infotainment" while standard news
practices are commended for their focus on important information.
There is some support for the argument that the public distinguishes between
the journalistic goals of standard and tabloid reporting. A study conducted by
Austin and Dong (1994) reveals that readers associate proper journalistic goals
(accuracy and objectivity) with newspaper reputations. Readers evaluated
stories that were embedded in a reputable ("New York Times"), disreputable
("Star") and fictitious newspaper. Stories that were featured with the tabloid
newspaper nameplate were rated as more biased and less accurate than those that
appeared with the fictitious or reputable paper nameplates. Moreover,
Tannenbaum and Lynch (1960) found that newspaper readers associated sensational
tabloid reporting with inaccuracy, irresponsibility, foolishness, and
unacceptable information. Yet, research has failed to address viewer
evaluations of tabloid versus standard news practices in television news.
By keeping the content constant in two experimental conditions this study not
only investigates viewer evaluations of tabloid and standard television news,
but it also provides insight into the impact of formal features on viewer
perceptions of how informative television news content is. If television
viewers are as mindful of the distinction between tabloid and standard
journalism as Austin and Dong (1994) suggest newspaper readers are, they should
rate the standard versions of news stories as more informative. This leads to
the first hypothesis:
H1: Viewers will rate standard versions of news stories as more informative than
Believability of news reporting is another important dimension of the
journalistic goal to inform the citizens of a democratic society. Critics refer
to tabloid news as incredible "sleaze" (Bernstein, 1992, p. 24) and "trash for
cash" (Salerno, 1995, A7). Yet, there have been few, if any, systematic
inquiries into the credibility or believability of tabloid versus standard news.
There is reason to argue, however, that just as the appearance of stylistic
flamboyance may cue viewers to how informative news stories are, the relative
believability of news may also be influenced by news packaging styles. This
suggests that formal features alone might influence perceptions of how
believable news content is and leads to the second hypothesis:
H2: Viewers will rate standard versions of news stories as more believable than
In the opinion of critics, tabloid news favors entertainment over information.
While many practitioners and scholars (Darnton, 1975; Carey, 1975; Epstein,
1974; Ericson, 1991; Graber, 1994; Hallin; 1984; Henry, 1981; Hughes, 1940;
Park, 1940; Tuchman, 1976; White, 1981) acknowledge television news packaging as
an exercise in constructing entertaining dramas, tabloid news is singled out
for taking this practice to excessive sensational levels. According to Cremedas
(1994), tabloid news content is punctuated by structural features (fast-paced
editing, dramatic music, rapid-fire narration, and extravagant graphic effects)
that emphasize style over substance. By contrast, standard television news
presentations are marked by stylistic understatement (Fiske, 1992). Yet, Graber
(1994) argues that sensational story topics and emphasis on dramatic visual
material may help to keep viewers interested in news. The application of
entertaining, attention-grabbing production techniques could therefore be
expected to add to what is described as entertaining content and should promote
greater enjoyment of news reports. This leads to the third hypothesis:
H3: Viewers will rate tabloid versions as more enjoyable than standard versions
of news stories.
Critics of tabloid news argue that tabloid reporters become personally involved
in news stories whereas reporters on standard newscasts maintain an official,
serious, and impersonal tone (Fiske, 1992). Tabloid reporters use rapid-fire
narration and an obtrusive voice tone to reveal their own attachment and to
promote identification, empathy, and involvement of viewers with news story
content (Knight, 1989). The obtrusive voice tone is often described as
signaling the cross-over from standard detached reporting to subjective
attachment of reporters to story content (Bolinger, 1982; Cremedas, 1994).
Moreover, empirical evidence suggests that viewers associate the obtrusive
narrations of tabloid reporters with incredible information. In fact, a
conversational style of presentation, characterized by lower pitch, slower rate,
lower volume, and less variation in inflection, is rated to be more credible
than a "dynamic style," exemplified by higher intensity and pitch, faster rate,
and greater variation in voice tone (Burgoon, 1978). These findings lead to the
H4: Viewers will rate reporters in tabloid versions of news stories as less
detached than those in standard versions.
Arousal and Memory
Sensationalism, believed to be a key ingredient of tabloid reporting, is often
defined by its potential to be emotionally arousing. It stimulates "unwholesome
emotional responses" (Mott, 1962, p. 442); shocks and thrills our moral and
aesthetic sensibilities (Tannenbaum & Lynch, 1960); emphasizes "emotion for
emotion's sake" (Emery & Emery, 1978); and arouses emotion and empathy (Graber,
1994). According to Daniels et al. in (Tannenbaum & Lynch, 1960, p. 382)
sensational news stories are "underdistanced," that is, they violate a
comfortable psychological distance between the audience and their perceptions of
events in the physical world. Thus sensational stories provoke more sensory and
emotional reactions than what is deemed proper and socially acceptable to desire
or experience. A number of scholars have associated specific formal features,
such as editing pace (Bolls, Yoon, Potter, & Lang, 1997; Gunter, 1987; Hitchon,
Thorson, & Duckler, 1994), point-of-view camera movement (Lombard, Reich, Grabe,
Campanella, & Ditton, 1995), shot length (Ekman, 1983; Galan, 1986; Salomon,
1972), and music (Seidman, 1981), with viewers' self-reports of emotional
arousal. This suggests that viewers might find the application of structural
features associated with tabloid news packaging more arousing than those typical
of standard news stories and leads to the fifth hypothesis:
H5: Viewers will report feeling more aroused during tabloid versions of the news
stories than standard versions.
In addition to heightening self-reported emotional arousal tabloid production
features should also increase viewers' physiological arousal. Previous research
has shown that an increase in production features can elicit greater
physiological arousal in viewers (Lang, Bolls, Potter, & Kawahara, in press;
Hitchon, Thorson, & Duckler, 1994). Lang et al. (in press) measured skin
conductance as a direct measure of activation in the sympathetic nervous system
and found that the more structural features in a message the greater the number
of non-specific skin conductance responses in viewers. Since the manipulation
here does not change the content of the story but only ads structural features,
it should follow that:
H6: Viewers will exhibit more skin conductance responses during tabloid
versions of the news stories than they do during standard versions.
Previous research on how viewers' process television messages, including
television news, suggests that arousal, once elicited, plays an important role
in many aspects of information processing (Zillmann, 1982). First, arousal
affects attention (Bradley, Greenwald, Petry, & Lang, 1992; Graber, 1990;
Reeves, Thorson, & Schleuder, 1986). Lang and her colleagues (Lang et al., in
press; Lang, Newhagen, & Reeves, 1997) have shown that more arousing stimuli
elicit more attention than less arousing stimuli do.
It is always difficult to measure attention (Chaffee & Schleuder, 1986; Geiger
& Newhagen, 1993). In some research attention is inferred by measuring memory.
However, several researchers have pointed out that this may not be appropriate,
particularly in the case of TV viewing (Grimes & Meadowcroft, 1995; Lang &
Basil, 1998; Reeves, Thorson, & Schleuder, 1986). As a result, recent research
on TV processing has been directed towards developing more direct measures of
attention such as secondary task reaction times (Lang & Basil, 1998) and heart
rate (Lang, 1990; Lang et al., in press; Lang, Newhagen, & Reeves, 1997; Thorson
& Lang, 1993).
Research using these measures has demonstrated that arousing stimuli increase
both physiological and cognitive measures of attention. In the
psychophysiological literature it has been clearly ascertained that a decrease
in heart rate is indicative of an increase in attention to a stimulus (Lacey,
Kagan, Lacey, & Moss, 1963). This same finding has been shown in research on
television viewing (Lang, 1990; Thorson & Lang, 1993). In addition, it has been
demonstrated that this decrease in HR associated with an increase in attention
holds even when the television messages are arousing. For example, Lang,
Newhagen, & Reeves (1998) found that viewers had slower heart rates while
viewing news stories containing graphic negative video then they did while
viewing the same news stories without the graphic negative images. Lang et al.
(in press) found that viewers watching arousing messages had slower heart rates
than viewers watching calm messages. Thus, if the tabloid versions of these
stories are more arousing than the standard versions, viewers' should pay more
attention to the stories, and have slower heart rates. This leads to hypothesis
H7: Heart rate should be slower during tabloid versions of the news stories
than it is during standard stories.
In addition to increasing sympathetic arousal, and increasing attention,
arousal has also been shown to improve memory for television messages (Bradley,
1992,1994; Lang, Dhillon, & Dong, 1995; Lang et al., in press).
H8: Tabloid versions of news stories will be remembered better than standard
In order to test these hypotheses eight news stories were produced. Each news
story had two versions, a tabloid version and a standard version. Participants
in the experiment viewed all eight stories, half in the tabloid version and half
in the standard version. We measured their own evaluations of their emotional
and evaluative responses using a series of semantic differential scales. While
they were viewing we measured participants heart rate and skin conductance to
assess moment to moment changes in attention and arousal. Following viewing
participants completed a speeded forced choice recognition test to assess their
memory for the stories they had seen.
The design of this experiment was a mixed Version (2) X Arousal (2) X Stories
(2) X Order (4) experiment. Version was a within subjects factor with two
levels, tabloid and standard, representing the production style of the news
story. The Arousal factor was used to control for the differences in arousal
level of the story topics. Participants own arousal rating were used to create
the levels of this factor, with the four highest arousal stories making up the
high arousal level and the four lowest arousal stories making up the low arousal
level. The two levels of Story (also a within subjects factor) represent the
two different stories at each level of arousal. Order, the only between
subjects factor, had four levels corresponding to the four stimulus tape
The stimuli for this experiment consisted of nine stories. Raw video material
was obtained from WISH TV (NBC affiliate) in Indianapolis. One was a practice
story for subjects to familiarize themselves with the experiment. It was
produced in a standard style only and used for every experimental order. The
other eight stories had two versions each. Subjects in a particular order either
saw the tabloid version or the standard version. The story topics included a
drive-by shooting, a hostage situation, a tornado in Texas, a flood in the
Midwest, abortion protests, a house fire, KKK and Black Panther rallies, and a
flag burning. The duration of stories ranged from 90 to 120 seconds.
The production was based on the results of a content analysis of structural
features used in tabloid and standard news magazine programs (Grabe, et al.
1998). Content (visual and verbal) was held constant for all stories. Thus the
scripts and camera shots were identical for both versions. Five production
variables (music, sound effects, slow motion, the use of flash frames as
transitions between shots, and obtrusiveness of reporter's voice tone) found to
be defining differences between tabloid and standard news stories were
Four male reporters (all four have experience in broadcast news) were used for
voice over narrations. Each narrated two versions (obtrusive and unobtrusive
voice tone) of two stories to control for individual voice differences.
Traditional versions of each story were first produced on the AVID non-linear
editing system. Copies of the stories were made and then flashes, slow motion,
recordings of the obtrusive voice narrations, sound effects and music were added
to create the tabloid versions. In accordance to the content analysis results,
slow motion was rendered about every 53 seconds, each lasting 8 to 10 seconds
long. Flashes were inserted about every 46 seconds. Sound effects were used
about every 83 seconds. Music was applied throughout 82% of the tabloid stories.
The intervals were used as a guide rather than a strict yardstick in the
manipulation. In other words, slow motion, sound effects and music were used
where appropriate and not necessarily in equal intervals.
Evaluation of the stories were measured by asking subjects to rate on a
ten-point semantic differential scale how enjoyable, informative, and believable
the story was and how detached the reporter appeared to be. A rating of 1
indicated "not at all" enjoyable, information, believable or detached whereas 10
indicated "very" enjoyable, information, believable or detached.
The recognition task contained 112 audio snippets, each exactly two seconds
long. Fifty-six such snippets were taken from the stimulus presentation and 56
foils were produced using the same four narrators. There were 14 snippets for
each story, with seven targets and seven foils. They were designed to test the
journalistic formula: who, what, where, when, how, and why. Moreover,
information about the context of the news event were used for the seventh
snippet. The order for the recognition snippets was randomly assigned from a
random number table. Subjects had two seconds after the snippet to indicate
whether they have previously heard the segment or not. The computer collected
response information and scored it as to which responses were correct and which
were incorrect. In addition, it recorded the time it took subjects to response,
which is the latency measure.
Delayed recall was measured 48 hours after the experiment by asking subjects to
recall the topics of stories they saw in the experiment. Stories were ranked in
the order they were recalled by subjects. Free recall was in the call-back
process. The experimenter provided no cues to stimulate memory.
Attention. Attention allocated to the news story was measured by subjects'
heart rate. Cardiac deceleration, an indicator of activation in the
parasympathetic nervous system (Papillo & Shapiro, 1990) is believed to measure
attention allocated to an external stimulus (Lang, 1994). Heart rate data were
averaged over five second intervals and transformed into change scores by
subtracting the average heart rate in the last second before onset from each
five second time period. Due to the varying length of stories this procedure
left between 16 and 26 data points per story. Analyses were ultimately
performed on the first 40 seconds of each story.
Arousal. Arousal was measured through both self-report and physiological data
collection. Subjects self-reported arousal was measured using the SAM
(Self-Assessment Mannequin) scale. SAM is a nine point pictorial scale shown to
be a valid measure of emotional response to television messages (Lang, Dhillon &
Dong, 1995; Morris, 1995). SAM measures emotional response on three dimensions:
arousal, valence and dominance. Arousal was the only dimension analyzed for
this study and ranges from 1, meaning very aroused or excited, to 9, meaning
calm, sleepy or not aroused.
Arousal was also measured by the frequency of nonspecific skin conductance
responses in each message, a common indicator of activation in the sympathetic
nervous system (Hopkins & Fletcher, 1994). Skin conductance data were collected
20 times per second. For each story Skin conductance responses greater than .5
micro siemens were scored and counted.
Memory was assessed using a forced choice reaction time visual recognition
test. Subjects viewed 128 three frame audio clips. Half of the clips were
taken from the stimuli material and half were foils. Subjects were instructed
to push either a yes (meaning they had seen the clip) or a no (meaning they had
not) button on a joy stick as fast as possible. From this data both the
accuracy of subjects recognition for each story and the speed with which
subjects were able to make those determinations was measured. Accuracy was
calculated as the percent of correct answers for the 16 clips for each story.
Latency was the average latency over the 16 responses for each story.
Subjects (N=40) were either graduate students (n=20) or employees of a large
mid-western university (n=20) who had only completed no more than a high school
education. Graduate students were recruited from an interdisciplinary program
excluding Journalism and Telecommunications students. University employees were
employed as janitors, cooks and physical plant workers. All subjects received
ten dollars as payment for their participation in this study. This paper
reports results for the combined subject group (n=40).
Four experimenters ran the data collection sessions for this study. Each
experimenter was trained to follow the same protocol for collecting subjects'
responses to the stimulus stories. To further increase consistency across data
collection sessions, narration of instructions was recorded onto video tape and
presented to all subjects. Subjects participated in the experiment one at a
time and each data collection session was controlled by a single experimenter.
Upon arrival, subjects were greeted by the experimenter and given an informed
consent form. The informed consent form stated that the purpose of the study
was to learn more about how people learn from mediated messages and informed
subjects of the placement of electrodes for the collection of physiological
data. After informed consent was obtained, subjects were seated in a vinyl
recliner and the experimenter applied five Beckman AG/AGCL standard electrodes
to the subject's forearms and non-dominant hand for collecting heart rate and
skin conductance. After applying the electrodes the experimenter gave subjects
a booklet containing the Evaluative and SAM scales then started the stimulus
The first section of the stimulus tape contained instructions for completing
the Evaluative and SAM scales. Subjects were informed that they would be
viewing eight news stories and were given instructions for completing each
individual item of the Evaluative and completing the three dimensions of the SAM
scale. The order the Evaluative and SAM scales appeared in were alternated for
each stimulus news story. Each scale appeared first for half of the stories.
After the instructions, subjects viewed a practice story. For all subject the
practice story was a standard version of a news report on riverboat gambling,
selected for its lack of emotional content. After the practice story subjects
were given the opportunity to ask the experimenter any questions. After
questions were answered, subjects viewed the eight stimulus news stories.
Between stories, recorded instructions guided the subjects through each of the
self-report scales and instructed the subject to turn the page of their booklet
and sit quietly for the next story to begin. The use of recorded instructions
between the news stories maintained a constant inter-stimulus interval across
all data collection sessions.
After the stimulus news stories were presented the experimenter removed the
electrodes from subjects and handed them the joystick used to respond to the
recognition memory test. Subjects then viewed recorded instructions for the
recognition memory test. Subjects were instructed that they would be hearing
very short audio clips and were to use the buttons on the joystick to indicate
whether or not they recognized the clip as being from one of the news stories
they just viewed. Subjects were warned that the clips would be presented
rapidly so they should go with their first reaction and respond as quickly as
possible. Subjects were given two seconds in between the two second clips to
respond. The experimenter made sure the subject did not have any questions and
then played the recognition audio clips. Upon completion of the recognition
memory test subjects were paid and they left the lab. Forty-eight hours after
their participation in the experiment, the first attempt to contact participants
to measure delayed recall was made. Daily attempts were made to reach the
participants until they were contacted or until ten tries had been made.
Heart rate and skin conductance were collected from subjects for a five second
baseline period just prior to the start of each news story and during each
story. The stimulus tape was played by a Panasonic videocassette recorder
connected to a 19 inch color television placed approximately five feet from the
subject. The videocassette recorder, physiological recording equipment and
experimenter were separated from the subject by an eight foot wooden wall.
Data collection was controlled by a 386 computer with a LabMaster AD/DA board
installed. Heart rate and skin conductance data was collected by Coulbourne
physiological recording equipment. Heart rate was initially measured as
milliseconds between beats and then transformed into average heart rate per
second. Skin conductance data were collected as an analog signal with a
sampling rate of 10 times per second. Responses to the recognition memory audio
clips were collected using a Sidewinder joystick. Subjects pressed separate
"yes" "no" buttons on the joystick to indicate whether or not they recognized
the audio clip. Recognition memory test responses were coded for accuracy and
response latency on a 386 computer using the Slimy Recognition/Reaction Time
program (Newhagen, 1993).
This hypothesis predicted that viewers would find standard versions of the
stories to be more informative than tabloid versions of the stories. The main
effect for Version on the informativeness ratings was significant (F(1,36)=6.02,
p<. 019), and as expected, viewers found the standard versions of the stories to
be more informative (M=6.54) than the tabloid versions (M=6.10).
This hypothesis predicted that viewers would find the standard versions of the
stories to be more believable than the tabloid versions. Again the main effect
for Version on the believability ratings was significant (F(1,36)=4.45, p<.042).
Viewers found the tabloid stories (M7.81) to be less believable than the
standard stories (M=8.29).
This hypothesis predicted that viewers would find the tabloid versions to be
more enjoyable than the standard versions. The main effect for version was
significant (F(1,36)=4.55, p<.040), yet viewers found tabloid versions to be
less enjoyable (M=3.41) than standard versions (M=3.79) of the stories.
This hypothesis predicted that viewers would rate the reporter as less detached
from the story in tabloid versions compared to standard versions. The main
effect for Version was significant (F(1,36) = 15.41, p<.000) with viewers rating
the reporters as less detached (M=6.51) in the tabloid versions than in the
standard versions (M=5.26).
This hypothesis predicted that viewers would report feeling more aroused during
tabloid stories than during standard stories. The main effect for Version was
again significant (F(1,36)=10.70, p<.002). Viewers rated themselves as feeling
more aroused (where 1 = aroused and 9 = calm) during tabloid versions (M=4.49)
than they were during standard versions (M=4.94).
This hypothesis predicted that the number of skin conductance responses would
be higher during tabloid versions than it was during standard versions. The
main effect for Version on the SCR data was significant (F(1,34)=4.82, p<.035),
in the predicted direction, and shown in Figure 1. In addition there was also a
main effect for Arousal (how arousing the story content was) (F(1,34)=7.57,
p<.009). However, there was no interaction between arousal and version.
This hypothesis predicted that viewers would have slower heart rates during
tabloid versions than they did during standard versions. Figure 2 shows the
significant Version main effect (F(1,31) = .460, p<.040). As expected heart
rate was slower during the tabloid versions than it was during the standard
This hypothesis predicted that viewers would remember the tabloid versions
better than the standard versions of the news stories. This hypothesis was
tested on three different data sets a percent accuracy on the visual recognition
test, visual recognition latency, and delayed recall. There were no significant
effects of Version on either the accuracy or the speed of the recognition
measure. There was a significant arousal effect in the latency data
(F(1,36)=4.33, p<.045) which is shown in Figure 3. Viewers were much faster to
recognize items from the high arousing stories than those in the less arousing
In the delayed recall data there was no Version main effect but there was a
significant disordinal Version X Arousal interaction. This interaction is shown
in Figure 4. For the less arousing stories the tabloid versions are remembered
better than the standard versions as expected. However, for the more highly
arousing stories, the tabloid versions are remembered less well than the
The data reported here suggest that the addition of a small group of structural
features to a television news production has a significant effect on viewer
perceptions, evaluations, and processing of news stories. The manipulations
made in this study were fairly small, yet their effects could be seen at a
physiological, cognitive, and attitudinal level. The results assist in
answering the research questions posed in this study: (1) Are viewers able to
distinguish between tabloid and standard news production styles? and (2) Do
tabloid production features overwhelm the information function of television
The answer to the first question is yes--viewers are able to distinguish
between tabloid and standard production features. Manipulations of only five
structural features (slow motion, flash-frame editing transitions, music, sound
effects, and obtrusiveness of voice tone) enabled viewers to distinguish a
sensational tabloid story from a proper standard news package. Indeed, while
the content (verbal information and visual images) was kept constant in the two
experimental conditions, viewers found stories produced in a standard news style
to be more informative and believable. At the same time viewers rated the
subjective involvement of reporters to be higher for the tabloid story versions.
From these findings it is possible to conclude that viewers are able to
recognize tabloid journalism when they see it and are naturally distrusting of
tabloid news content. This stands in sharp contrast to journalism critics who
fear that viewers are gullible consumers of tabloid news messages. Statements
like those of Bernstein (1992, p. 8) that Americans "kindle" at tabloid news
"trash" cannot be supported by this study.
The answer to the second question is multi-faceted. First, the finding that
tabloid versions of news stories were evaluated as less informational and
believable suggests that viewers are less trusting of tabloid news messages.
This may impede the journalistic goal to inform the citizens of a democratic
society. Clearly, if an audience does not view information as informative and
believable, broadcast journalism fails its information function.
Second, viewers liked news stories presented in a tabloid style less than
standard news productions. But, one of the primary effects of sensationalizing
the news stories was the increase in both perceived and physiological arousal,
an effect that likely plays a role in subsequent attention increase. Memory for
information in the news stories, however, was not better in the tabloid
condition compared to standard news presentations. Perhaps this finding is
comparable to what Newhagen and Reeves (1991) found in their study of negative
political advertising: Although viewers say they don't like negative political
advertising, they seem to pay more attention to it.
The delayed recall results offer insight into the impact of tabloid and
standard production techniques on already arousing content. Similar to what
Lang et al. (in press) found in their study of editing pace and arousing visual
content, recall was worse for arousing content coupled with flamboyant
production features, as well as non-arousing content packaged in a lusterless
production style. Thus, information recall is best when arousing content is
presented in a standard production style or when non-arousing content is
produced in a sensational form. From the limited capacity information
processing perspective (Geiger & Newhagen, 1993; Lang, 1995) this finding can be
explained in terms of an overload on information processing resources. The
combination of arousing content coupled with extravagant production features
overloads information processing capacities, negatively affecting recall of
information. At the same time unarousing content presented in an unarousing
production format may not be demanding enough on the information processing
system to allow effective encoding and storage of information.
There was no significant difference between the accuracy and speed with which
tabloid and standard story information was recognized. However, as a group,
arousing stories were recognized faster than unarousing stories. These
findings, in combination with the delayed recall findings, suggest that arousing
stories demand attention and are therefore more thoroughly encoded, enabling
retrieval at a later time.
In conclusion, compared to the standard versions of news stories, tabloid
production features do not seem to hinder the successful transfer of
information. Graber (1994) suggests that arousing news packaging devices might
serve journalistic ideals by enhancing viewer attention to and interest in news.
Yet this study found that arousing content combined with arousing structural
features (tabloid packaging) can lead to an overload on the information
processing system, inhibiting memory. The content of stimuli in this experiment
included a fire, murder, flood, tornado, abortion protest, hostage situation,
flag burning, and KKK and Black Panther rally. These are all relatively
arousing topics. Future research should focus on the interaction between
arousing/unarousing content and arousing/unarousing production features to tease
out the most effective ways of communicating news and information important for
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