Study: Screen Clutter Hurts News

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TV screens during news shows are so cluttered with crawls, scrolls, logos, weather boxes and sports scores that viewers are finding it nearly impossible to focus on the anchors, three mass-media researchers said.

"If you want people to understand the news better, then get that stuff off the screen," said Kansas State University Professor Tom Grimes. "Clean it up and get it off because it is simply making it more difficult for people to understand what the anchor is saying."

Grimes collaborated with fellow KSU journalism professor Lori Bergen and Deborah Potter, head of the Washington research firm Newslab, to study distracting visual information on TV screens.

The study focused on viewers' ability to digest content in the presence of distracting information on the screen.

The researchers concluded that people tend to remember about 10%  fewer facts when information on the screen is unrelated to the primary report. "Everything you see on the screen -- the crawls, the anchor person, sports scores, weather forecast -- are conflicting bits of information that don't hang together semantically," Grimes said. "They make it more difficult to attend to what is the central message."

The researchers conducted four experiments examining individuals' attention spans regarding complex and simple cognitive processes.

"People were splitting their attention into too many parts to understand any of the content," Grimes said.

The researchers said the results debunk a theory made popular in the 1990s when MTV rocketed to success with bold graphics, cool VJs and music .

MTV founder Robert Pittman attributed the success to young viewers' ability to process multiple information streams simultaneously. The idea spread, even to news when CNN's Headline News became one of the first news operations to add additional elements to the picture.

Grimes insists Pittman's theory is wrong. "The way people process information is not something that can be learned. The human brain is today as it was in the 1880s, the 1580s and in the time of the Greeks and Romans. It has not changed," Grimes said. "We are no better able to parallel process conflicting information now than we were 300 years ago."

Grimes said the youth of the anchors, the language used and the music contributed to MTV's success -- not distracting visuals.

The researchers documented their study in "How Attention Partitions Itself During Simultaneous Message Presentations," an article to be published in July's Human Communication Research.

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