When people multitask with media they are consuming two or more streams of unrelated media content. (Dealing with two related media streams has different dimensions.) 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. Perhaps they are searching on a Web site while texting on their phone. Or they are tuning in to a YouTube video while exchanging e-mails on a laptop. Maybe CNN is playing on their screen and they are tracking the news while chatting online about work in one window and connecting with a friend several time zones away via Skype.
Or maybe all of these things are happening at once.
Given what we’re finding out about media multitasking, it is much more ubiquitous and involves many more streams of content than is commonly appreciated. Based on surveys we have done at Stanford University, the average university student is regularly using four different media streams; fewer than 5 percent of students report that they regularly use a single stream, and more than 20 percent are using six or more streams at one time. Other research suggests that this method of handling media is increasing across populations ranging from infants (e.g., breast-feeding babies will watch television when their mothers are doing so) to adults in the work force (e.g., many companies require workers to respond immediately to multiple media channels, such as mobile phones, chat and e-mail).
Journalists are adapting—with varying degrees of frustration and consternation—to the unwillingness of the growing number of media multitaskers to focus on one stream of content, regardless of how engaging it might be. Given the urge to consume as much unrelated content as possible, readers demonstrate an unwillingness, for example, to stay with long-formjournalism; the 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.
At a more macro level, one sees increasing concessions to heavy media multitaskers in the clustering of stories on the Web. In the early days of digital news, links would augment a story with supporting video or prior coverage on its topic. In the second phase, the number of links increased, and the relationships between the story and links became more tenuous (e.g., having “international news” or “politics” in common). Today, numerous links like Top Stories, Editor’s Picks, and Articles You Might Be Interested In are scattered throughout each Web page and the relationship between the base story and the links tends to vanish.
Heavy Media Multitaskers
While these responses to changing reading styles are important to understand, journalists are now being confronted with an even more important situation brought about by this growth in media multitasking. Now evident to those of us who study media multitasking are fundamental changes in the way heavy media multitaskers (HMMs) process information. Research I did with Eyal Ophir and Anthony Wagner that we published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that HMMs—who are already a large and rapidly growing part of the population—are much worse than previous generations of readers at three tasks that reporters have been able to take for granted: filtering the relevant from the irrelevant, managing short-term memory, and switching from one task to another.
Because these changes affect the way people can consume media rather than how they wish to see media, the requisite changes will strike at the very core of how news can be written. What follow are implications for journalism based on what we’ve learned about the habits of HMMs.
Filtering Information: The HMM’s inability to filter irrelevant information, even when it is labeled as irrelevant, is shocking. In one experiment people were asked to only pay attention to red rectangles and to ignore blue rectangles. While light media multitaskers (LMMs) were unaffected by the blue rectangles, no matter how many there were, the HMMs were consistently distracted by the blues: The more blue, the less attention they paid to the red rectangles.
With this inability to filter in mind, news stories and editorials must be highly focused. Filtering provides a sense of proportion that HMMs lack so secondary messages will tend to dilute the primary message. Also, readers 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. Finally, even engrossing stories are going to be competing with advertisements, e-mails, phone calls, Twitter and a host of other media streams since HMMs will be chronically seduced by the other: With HMMs, nothing grabs and sustains truly focused attention.
Short-term Memory: Another experiment examined the ability to manage short-term memory. Participants were shown a sequence of letters and were continually asked whether they saw a given letter exactly three letters before. While LMMs did reasonably well at this task, HMMs did progressively worse with this task as a given letter appeared more frequently and as the number of letters grew.
If one thinks of the brain as a set of filing cabinets, HMMs—the readers of today and especially tomorrow—have messier cabinets and have a harder time finding what they need. This inability of HMMs to manage short-term memory means that stories will be more effective if they take people step by step through an argument or time sequence because readers will get confused by interlocking content. On the other hand, the classic inverted pyramid will be very difficult for HMMs to follow because the interrelated content requires memory management and integration.
Switching Tasks: The final deficiency is ironic: HMMs are actually worse at switching from one task to another. This was demonstrated when participants were asked to perform a task that focused on either a letter or a number and then were presented with a letter/number pair. The HMMs were dramatically slowed down when the task randomly switched from letter to number or vice versa. Thus, as HMMs switch from reading an article to consuming other media and then switch back—a very frequent occurrence—they are often influenced by intervening content. 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. Perhaps most ironic is that the juxtaposition of unrelated content, driven by a desire to satisfy HMMs, is going to make it harder for HMMs to understand the stories that they do read.
Journalists have long been responsive to changes in society, culture, and consumer demographics and preferences. The extraordinary growth of media multitasking means that there is now an unprecedented source of variance—the brains of news consumers—that is demanding change. This presents journalists with a critical challenge: How will the public be best informed given the emerging cognitive deficiencies created by chronic multitasking? Few questions are as necessary as this one for journalists to address. Given the pace at which media multitasking continues to increase, there is urgency in finding answers.
Clifford Nass is the Thomas M. Storke Professor at Stanford University in the Department of Communication. He is author of the forthcoming “The Man Who Lied to His Laptop: What Machines Teach Us About Human Relationships,” to be published in September as one of two inaugural books in Penguin’s popular science imprint, Current.