As News, Tech, and Democracy Evolve

Somewhere around 370 bc, in Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates told a story about the Egyptian gods Theuth and Thamus, who were debating the value of Theuth’s invention of writing. Theuth said that writing would make Egyptians wiser, but Thamus disagreed. “This discovery will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls,” he said, “because they will not use their memories. They will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves.”

In the ensuing millennia, dire warnings have accompanied the advent of each new form of communication—from the printing press to television and now the Internet. “The medium is the message,” declared Marshall McLuhan in 1964, commenting on how the nature of a medium transforms the way we perceive its content. As the development of writing changed our ability to remember long passages, the web—with its endless capacity to send our minds in a thousand directions—may be affecting our ability to absorb and retain what we read. Are we now accessing such vast seas of information that we are able, at best, to skim the shallows? And what does this mean for a democracy designed to be maintained by a well-informed citizenry?

Questions such as these were at the heart of research conducted last year by three UO doctoral degree candidates, who, in light of newspaper readers’ increasing migration to the web, examined the difference in how college students retained the information in New York Times news stories when they read them online or in print.

Arthur Santana, PhD ’12, and UO doctoral candidates Randall Livingstone and Yoon Cho started the project in associate professor Scott Maier’s Quantitative Methods course. They recruited forty-five college students who were regular news readers (both print and online) and set them up in a lab, where for twenty minutes, half of them read news stories on the Timeswebsite and the other half read the same stories in the print edition. Afterward, the subjects were given a short survey that tested them on their retention of what they had read, asking for information on headlines, topics, and main points, as well as how credible they found the stories, how much of each story they read before moving on, and, for online readers, whether they had used multimedia tools such as slideshows.

The survey results showed that the print readers remembered significantly more news topics, more specific stories, and more of the stories’ main points than the online readers. “The bottom line is, something is lost in the translation,” Santana says. “We can only speculate what the ramifications will be, but this raises many concerns.”

The study attributes the difference partly to the agenda-setting function of the print newspaper. “The print version’s placement priorities give readers a clue as to importance,” Santana says. “Is the story front page? Above the fold? With online stories, there are no agenda-setting cues.”

Also, online news stories are ephemeral. “They’re here one minute, gone the next,” Santana says. Their fleeting nature gives the impression that they are not worth remembering, while at the same time, the fact that they are archived online makes it seem less important for us to store the information in our minds.

Another difference: while print stories are generally confined to one or two pages, online stories often spread across many pages of a newspaper’s website and are usually interrupted by advertising. “It’s like you’re walking through a midway and everybody’s reaching out saying, ‘Buy this! Try this! Do this!’” says UO associate professor of journalism John Russial, Santana’s academic advisor.

Maier says the research project was unusual because most of his students don’t do experimental work. “These students are interested in doing research that makes a real difference in the real world.”

Their paper, presented at the 2011 meeting of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, created considerable interest around the web, with a column devoted to it by Jack Shafer, then a columnist for Slate. Shafer backed up the students’ research by commenting that he personally had gone back to subscribing to the print edition of the Times after a period of reading news only online. “I wasn’t recalling as much of the newspaper as I should be,” he wrote. “Going electronic has punished my powers of retention. I also noticed that I was unintentionally ignoring a slew of worthy stories.”

Dominique Rossi ’10, a second-year UO law student, couldn’t agree more. She gets almost all her news from the web, but admits that she retains printed information better. “We’ve been taught to go through online material quickly, like skimming,” she says. “If it’s in print, I’m fully engaged. I give an adequate amount of time to every sentence. If I read it online, I’m probably also doing something else.”

Our haphazard relationship with online news raises real concerns, Santana says. “The news makes a very important contribution to democracy, and its democracy-enabling function depends on how long the story resides in a person’s memory.”

Santana, who will be an assistant professor at the University of Houston this fall, has a deep knowledge of newpapers gained by working for fourteen years as a reporter and editor (at the San Antonio Express-NewsSeattle Times, and Washington Post) before launching his academic career.

“Reporters still generally write for the print product,” he says, “but consumers are consuming it in a whole different medium. This makes for a fascinating time in journalism.”

Anonymous Comments and the Demise of Civility

Arthur Santana, PhD ’12, delved into another facet of online life when he wrote his dissertation on a salient feature of online news: the comment section. He examined the tone of readers’ comments (both anonymous and attributed posts) on two types of stories that ran in newspapers around the nation, particularly in border states. The stories covered either issues surrounding undocumented immigration or the Tea Party movement.

In his research, Santana found that, overall, anonymous comments on stories about immigration were much more vicious than anonymous comments following stories about the Tea Party. In fact, he says, this new era of participatory journalism has brought hateful language to a level not seen since the Civil War. “Many of these comment boards are platforms where people can be vicious, racist, and even sadistic—and get away with it,” he writes. The forums “have contributed to turning back the dial of racial equality, a reawakening of a form of bigotry on a public scale not seen in decades.”

If someone paints swastikas and racist epithets on a public building in Oregon, it is investigated as a hate crime, he notes. But when someone calls someone a “wetback” and threatens to kill them and their family in an online newspaper commenting forum, “it is defended as free speech or a right of the disenfranchised to express themselves, and the newspaper is absolved of any responsibility.”

The danger of this flood of hateful sentiment, he writes, is that “the attitudes expressed therein begin to seep into the public’s subconscious as normal, commonplace, and acceptable.”

There are ways to restore constructive discussion, he says. One solution, already adopted by some newspapers, is to remove the option to post anonymous comments. “There is indeed a dramatic improvement in the level of civility in online conversations when anonymity is removed,” he writes in his thesis.

At their best, online comment boards have the potential to effect positive change, Santana says. “Newspapers should take this constitutive moment,” he writes, “and, as they look ahead to reinventing themselves, remember their history and their fundamental role in a democratic society.”

By Rosemary Howe Camozzi '96