Online news consumption has transformed over the past decade, one innovation being personalization: the algorithmic process that news outlets use to “personalize” the articles that are presented to readers based on what they’ve clicked in the past.
One Ithaca College professor is studying how effective news personalization is and how news consumption is affected by distracted readers. Lisa Farman, assistant professor in the Department of Strategic Communication, recently presented her research that explores these topics.
Farman presented her research paper, titled “Personalized news in the age of distraction: Testing the effectiveness of personalized news under multitasking conditions,” at the 2018 annual conference of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, which took place Aug. 6–9 in Washington, D.C.
Opinion editor Meredith Burke spoke with Farman about her interest in the field, the findings of her research and her plans to pursue the research further.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Meredith Burke: Why do you think personalized news and its relation to multitasking are relevant today?
Lisa Farman: A big area of interest of mine is personalization in general, because technology today allows many companies to personalize all kinds of different content for people, and one of those areas of content is news. … This started with Google News, where you would decide how you wanted your news personalized, … but now, news organizations like The New York Times and other newspapers are personalizing people’s news experiences behind the scenes. … In terms of multitasking, … when we test out different psychological processes, a lot of our experiments are done in a lab, and it’s kind of unrealistic to assume that when someone’s interacting with content like news, that they’re just going to have just that webpage open … without any interruptions or distractions. … So I really wanted to look at [personalization and multitasking] together and to see how that would work in the same experiment.
MB: For our readers, would you mind saying what your findings were after this experiment?
LF: I found that when people’s news homepages were personalized, meaning featured content that matched the person’s interests, they found the content to be more relevant — not surprisingly — and they also were more involved with the content. … And the increased relevance and increased involvement both led to people liking the news website better. When people were distracted, they had more trouble remembering what they read. But interestingly, they had more trouble remembering ‘big picture’ things, like the topics of the news articles, but they did a better job at remembering kind of random details in the news articles. … Also, when people were distracted, they found the news sites to be less credible than when they were not distracted, which is an important finding for news organizations. … There weren’t any interactions between the two, meaning that distraction didn’t ruin the positive impact of personalization and personalization didn’t improve the negative impact of distraction. … The last finding was that … people who multitasked more in their everyday lives didn’t perform any better on remembering the information that they read than people who multitasked less.
MB: Do you have plans to publish or to pursue this research further?
LF: So I’m hoping to, obviously, move this paper forward and get it published. But then I’d definitely like to continue with some of these topics. … I think we definitely need more research about personalized news. … And along with the positive effects I found in my study, there are definitely negative effects that have come into the news recently with what we call ‘echo chambers.’ So basically the more you are exposed to news that matches your own opinions, you’re not exposed necessarily to as much news that contradicts your opinions. … One of my hopefully future research dreams is to try and test some other media effects under multitasking conditions because I don’t think we necessarily only interact with media the same way when we’re multitasking. … So cognitive load is one type of multitasking, … but we also experience interruptions, … which would be great to incorporate into some future studies. And finally, I’m really interested in the finding that I had about distraction decreasing the perceived credibility of the news site, and so I think that’s something for future research to explore as well.
MB: What do you hope will come from your research?
LF: I definitely would like to see more research that mirrors some of the more realistic media consumption experiences that we have. So for example, if we just keep studying news, but we never make any of that news personalized to our interests, then that’s not really replicating our news consumption experience. Similarly, if we keep doing studies about media and we don’t have the person doing something that approximates multitasking, that’s not very realistic either. I guess I’m hoping that more research will incorporate some of these newer experiences with media that come from the introduction of technology and more technology into our media consumption experiences. And … that distracting can reduce the perceived credibility of the news website. I think that’s important for news organizations to think about and to try and come up with solutions for how we can increase engagement with the news content to hopefully combat some of those negative effects of distraction. Especially … because right now credibility is a big issue for news organizations to address.