Does Interacting with Media Enhance News Memory? Automatic vs. Controlled Processing of Interactive News Features
Student Researcher

Corina Constantin (PhD Student)

Faculty Supervisor

Dr. S. Shyam Sundar

For a complete report of this research, see:

Sundar, S. S. & Constantin, C. D. (2004, May). Does interacting with media enhance news memory? Automatic vs. controlled processing of interactive news features. Paper presented to the Information Systems division at the 54th annual convention of the International Communication Association (ICA), New Orleans, LA.


Interactive news features are becoming increasingly common in online news. Despite their expense, major news organizations invest in them heavily, especially for narrating major national and international news events. But, how effective is this method of news dissemination? Does it enhance the news reader’s understanding of events? If so, in which ways and for what reasons?


Interacting with online news is quite unlike the passive reception of news via traditional mass media. Interactivity of online content, for example, has been linked to greater user involvement. If this is the case,

H1: Greater the interactivity in a news story, greater the clicking activity by the user.

On the other hand, interactive news stories are more likely to be processed consciously rather than automatically and also lead to better remembering of news information because of a greater user involvement as users get more involved. Hence,

H2: Greater the clicking activity during reception of a news story, better the recognition memory for story details.

Another consequence of users’ involvement with interactive news stories reflects the way they perceive the news stories. We expected users’ ratings of perceived interactivity, quality of engagement, and structure to be higher as the news become more interactive, and therefore more involving.

H3: Greater the interactivity in a news story, more positive the user perceptions of interactivity, structure, and quality (of engagement).

At the same time, any change or anything new in the environment attracts attention for a short period of time. Physiologically, this involuntary attention has been linked to sudden heart-rate decelerations (e.g., Thorson & Lang, 1992) in the immediate aftermath of each change. Therefore,

H4: Greater the clicking activity, greater the deceleration in heart-rate.

H5: Greater the interactivity in a news story, greater the deceleration in heart-rate.

As interactivity calls for frequent changes in content, users become busy just trying to attend the new information available. Thus, it would be relatively easy for them to recognize parts of the content, but harder to recall it themselves.

H6: Greater the interactivity in a news story, higher the recognition memory for story details.

H7: Greater the interactivity in a news story, lower the recall memory for story details.


Fourteen undergraduate students (N = 14) participated in an experiment in exchange for extra credit. All participants were exposed to 11 online news segments selected from the New York Times online archives, and reporting the development of the war in Iraq during March-April 2003. Each online news segments was containing a different number (1, 2, or 3) and different combinations of interactive features (tabs, rollovers, and drags).

The heart-beat rate was monitored throughout the test period via online ECG recordings. In addition, perceptions of the online news segments were measured by means of a paper-and-pencil questionnaire administered after exposure to each online news segment. Memory for the news segments was measured using a post-experiment paper-and-pencil questionnaire.


H1: Supported. The results show a significant effect of the number of interactive features present in a news segment on the number of clicks, suggesting that people click on more links when the online news segment contains 3 interactive features as opposed to 1 or 2.

H2: Not Supported. We found no relationship between the number of clicks and recognition of first-layer information (i.e., information found of the first page of each news segment); however, there was a significant positive relationship between the number of clicks and the click-based recognition, so that the more participants clicked on different links, the greater their recognition of the deeper-layer information.

H3: Partially Supported. No significant relationship was found between number of interactive features and perceived quality, perceived real-time interactivity or perceived system interactivity. A marginally significant relationship between number of interactive features and perceived structure was found, suggesting that online news segments containing 3 interactive features were perceived as less well-structured than news segments containing 2 or 1.

H4: Not Supported. The analyses conducted to test H4 showed a deceleration in heart-rate with an increase in clicking activity. However, this was more attributable to the effect of news content rather than the clicking activity. We concluded that probably some content was more involving than other, leading to both increased number of links clicked on and decreased heart-rate.

H5: Not Supported. The same results were found while testing for H5; thus, even though a greater number of interactive features present in an online news segment led to a deceleration in heart-rate, we cannot tell if the deceleration is due to the number of interactive features or to the content of the news story.

H6: Supported. There was also a significant effect of the number of interactive features on recognition of first-layer information, such that the content of news segments containing 3 interactive features was significantly better recognized than the content of the news segments containing 1 or 2 interactive features.

On click-based recognition, the significant differentiation occurred between 1 and 2 interactive features, such that embedded news content of segments with 2 features was better recognized than that of segments with just 1 interactive feature.

H7: Supported. The results revealed a significant effect of number of interactive features on exact recall, such that the content of news segments containing 3 interactive features was recalled significantly more poorly compared to the content of news segments containing 1 or 2 interactive features, even though they seemed to be more memorable.

An exploratory analysis was also conducted to see if usage of drags, tabs, and rollovers has different impact on users. The analysis revealed that only drags led to a visible heart-rate deceleration.


This study clearly shows that the use of a greater diversity of interactive devices within an online news segment is associated with increased attention (as indicated by heart-rate deceleration), higher memorability of the segment itself and better recognition, but poorer recall of story details. It appears that the introduction of different ways of interacting with the news segment (tabs, rollovers, and drags in this case) triggers automatic allocation of cognitive resources toward encoding news information. Self-report data show that participants perceived a lack of structure in news segments that had multiple devices, leading to lower ratings of perceived coherence and higher ratings of perceived confusion. Therefore, it appears that variety of interactive devices produces orientation as well as cognitive overload similar to that found with multimedia features in online news sites (Sundar, 2000), with resultant memory effects comparable to those of formal features in television stimuli (see Lang, 2000 for an overview).

For more details regarding the study contact

Dr. S. Shyam Sundar by e-mail at or by telephone at (814) 865-2173

>> Return to abstract listings page
>> Return to the main research page

Media Effects Research Lab at College of Communications, Penn State University