Nieman Reports has an interesting post by Clifford Nass, professor at Stanford University Department of Communication, about his research into the behaviour of so-called “heavy media multitaskers”.
Professor Nass begins by introducing the world of media multitasking:
It doesn’t matter exactly what information they are taking in or what devices they are using; just the act of using two or more media streams simultaneously means that consumers are engaging in what is an increasingly frequent pursuit in our digital age.
Nass claims that multitasking in this way has a serious impact on the length of time readers are willing to devote to online news, and renders the traditional ‘inverted pyramid’ news writing structure a bad fit for online journalism.
[T]he longer the article, the greater the frequency readers show of bouncing around and eventually drifting to other media streams. Similarly, how stories are being told must become less complex as readers show an unwillingness to allocate enough attention to work through difficult material.
Nass’ main observations:
Filtering Information: The heavy media multitasker’s (HMM) inability to filter irrelevant information, even when it is labeled as irrelevant, is shocking (…) With this inability to filter in mind, news stories and editorials must be highly focused (…) [R]eaders will not distinguish between experts and nonexperts, even when the distinction is made clear in the story. For this reason, it is important to avoid using sources that are obviously unqualified to create balance.
Short-term Memory: the classic inverted pyramid will be very difficult for HMMs to follow because the interrelated content requires memory management and integration.
Switching Tasks: News articles are therefore going to require more recapitulations and reminders to help readers pick up where they left off. It will also help to ensure that the layout, font and other visual features of the article are radically different from the rest of the page, thereby reminding readers of the distinction between the story and all of the other streams that they continually encounter.