Attention-Getting and Comprehension-Raising Attributes in Visuals in Dutch and American, Public and Private Television News about Violence

Article excerpt

Using visual aids is a hallmark of television news in the United States and the Netherlands. In the words of Henny Stoel (1996), a well-known news reader and editor of the Dutch NOS (Dutch Broadcasting Foundation) news, "When you turn on the television, you want to see something. If you only want to listen, you turn on the radio, and readers pick up the newspaper or a book. Television is mainly about images, the rest is subordinate" (p. 62). A quotation from former CBS anchor Walter Cronkite underscores the importance of visuals in television news: "If we can illustrate all stories there is no further need of a news broadcaster to read half the items to the public. Disembodied voices can narrate the film, reporters on the scene will be seen when the situation demands, and there will be no need for a news master of ceremonies in the studio" (quoted in Whetmore, 1995, p. 233). Images give the news "authenticity," "credibility," and "actuality," and give us the impression that we are witnessing "something with our own eyes" (Brosius, Donsbach, & Birk, 1996, p. 181). Seeing is believing, "remembering" (Graber, 1990), and, according to Henny Stoel (1996), even "understanding." She claims that she can talk about ethnic cleansing in former Yugoslavia, but the audience only understands it when it is illustrated with pictures (p. 62). Granted that footage and other visuals can help viewers grasp many aspects of complex events and issues, few studies of news visuals content analyze the presence of attributes identified as aiding in recall. This content analysis draws on empirical research into television news recall to analyze whether the elements of visual aids that are found to increase learning of television news are present in visuals that are actually used in television news.

While a content analysis cannot specify if a viewer would learn more about an issue, it can measure the presence of elements that have been indicated to aid television news recall. A "memorable" visual should not be confused with one conveying a "right" message to the audience, but one that contributes to higher levels of recall among television news viewers directly after exposure. Of course, viewers still interpret what they recall and select what they remember over the long term, depending upon their background, needs, and interests. With the knowledge from experiments and content analyses combined, we can more thoroughly understand the use of visuals in television news and analyze the presence of attention-getting and comprehension-raising attributes. These attributes may not always be mutually exclusive or binary opposites. A comprehensible news item, which must first attract viewers' attention, will have both types of attributes. However, only a blank screen does not have either of the attributes.

Communication researchers have studied the effects of the use of visuals on television news recall for many years. Some of the early studies yield positive effects of the use of visuals on recall (Edwardson, Grooms, & Proudlove, 1981), while other research fails to indicate such effects (Edwardson, Grooms, & Pringle, 1976; Katz, Adoni, & Parness, 1977). Instead of looking at the effects of visuals per se, researchers have since studied several contingent conditions to find out whether the use of visuals in television news contributes to or distracts from recall of details among tested viewers. It is now clear that several confounding factors, such as type, content, and quality of a visual, accounted for conflicting findings. Recent studies, which carefully controlled for the possibility of confounding factors, have found support for positive effects of the use of visuals on television news recall (Berry & Brosius, 1991; Brosius, 1991; Brosius, 1993; Brosius, et al., 1996). Furthermore, various studies have identified several features of visual aids conducive to recall and other features that inhibit it. Features conducive to recall can be said, theoretically, to raise the level of an item's comprehensibility, that is, to increase the number of details recalled immediately after viewing. …