The Effect of News Format and Personal Relevance on Affect

Sophia R. McMorrow, Hannah M. Hood-Johnson, Brianna L. Scandell, Matthew P. Newman, and Grace E. Fink

Saint Louis University

Abstract

Considering the ubiquitous news coverage of COVID-19, it is important to examine the relationship between news consumption and affect, an important aspect of mental health. This study examined how news format and personal relevance influence affect. Participants watched 15 minutes of news clips or read their text transcriptions, which had either high personal relevance (e.g., COVID-19 and college students) or low personal relevance (e.g., COVID-19 and older adults). Participants then completed the Positive and Negative Affect Schedule questionnaire to measure affect (PANAS; Watson et al., 1988). A 2×2 ANOVA was conducted and found a significant main effect of format on negative affect, F(1,51) = 6.76, p = 0.012). Video news led to significantly higher negative affect (M = 24.00, SD = 6.53) than text news (M = 19.22, SD = 7.43). This suggests that video news may have a greater impact on affect and mental health than text news.

Keywords: news, affect, personal relevance, news format, text media, video media, PANAS, COVID-19

 

The Effect of News Format and Personal Relevance on Affect

         The COVID-19 pandemic has brought new and unexpected stressors for people all over the world. Whether it is related to anxiety about the spread of the virus or loneliness and isolation from social distancing, the pandemic has had profound effects on mental health. Recent research on the impact of COVID-19 on mental health demonstrates that the pandemic is associated with significant levels of psychological distress, much of which meets the criteria for clinical concern (Xiong et al., 2020). In response to growing mental health concerns, it is important to identify what factors an individual can control to help improve mental health and mitigate these effects.

Effect of News on Mental Health

         Considering the extensive news coverage of COVID-19, it is necessary to examine how news consumption is related to mental health. Past research suggests that news media can greatly affect mental health, especially during crises. For instance, after the Boston Marathon bombings, researchers found that watching bombing-related media was associated with symptoms of acute stress, and participants that reported watching six or more hours of news each day had higher levels of acute stress compared to participants with direct exposure to the bombings (Holman et al., 2013). Additionally, Ahern et al. (2004) explored the effects of graphic image exposure through media consumption on an individual’s psychological symptoms and found that rates of psychopathological symptoms increased (17.4% PTSD and 14.7% MDD) when those who were directly affected by the disaster viewed the graphic images. Taken together, these studies suggest that news coverage of crises increases signs of psychological distress.

Other studies have demonstrated that news media affects mental health. For instance, Johnston and Davey (1997) found that negatively focused TV programing can increase worry or concern. Indeed, when subjects were shown negative news, they had increased self-reported levels of worry and sadness, and catastrophizing increased negative mood. Catastrophizing is a thought distortion, in which an individual’s thinking is based on negative information and focusing only on negative outcomes (Sherwin et al., 2017). Other research confirms this effect, as news that is perceived to be negative was related to increased negative affect (de Hoog & Verboon, 2019). Furthermore, Szabo and Hopkinson (2007) found that when participants watched a 15-minute newscast, it was associated with increased state anxiety and mood disturbance and decreased positive affect. Taken together, these studies suggest that news consumption is associated with increased anxiety and negative mood.

Given the novelty of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is important to examine how this additional stress and news emphasis may lead to potential psychological and emotional distress. In terms of psychological distress, Hamidein et al. (2020) found that anxiety is the most commonly reported effect of consuming COVID-19 related news. Additionally, it is worth noting that those individuals who have no personal connection to COVID-19 still face the same amount of anxiety when presented with pandemic-related news as those who have been diagnosed, have a loved one diagnosed with COVID-19, or work in the healthcare field (Hamidein et al., 2020). This suggests that news media alone can increase anxiety in those who consume it, even when individuals are not personally affected. Consequently, it is clear that further research is needed to determine how COVID-19 related news impacts affect and emotion.

Personal Relevance

 It is essential to understand the scope of reasons why news media may impact individual consumers differently, and personal relevance may be a variable involved in the relationship between news and mental health. Indeed, de Hoog and Verboon (2019) suggested that personal relevance may be a moderating variable, and that personally relevant news leads to more negative affect but is not related to positive affect. Blazarotti and Ciceri (2014) also examined the effect of personal relevance and found that fear was greater in participants that watched news about threats that were deemed more likely to happen to them. Another study by Dejonckheere et al. (2019) found that when personal relevance is greater, there is less of a separation between positive and negative affect, and therefore the individual experiences either the negative or positive affect in a much stronger capacity. The relationship between personally relevant news and affect may be related to the cognitive appraisal theory. According to the cognitive appraisal theory, the reaction to a stressor depends on how the individual interprets the situation, which is affected by personal relevance (Lazarus, 1991). Based on this information, researchers have suggested that when participants view news, it can be perceived as a threat. Taken together, these studies suggest that personal relevance influences how individuals perceive threats in news, which in turn can influence affect.

News Format

Furthermore, it is also important to compare the effects of video news and text news on affect. Past research has widely focused on video news, and there is little research examining how other forms of news, such as news articles, impact mental health (Pfefferbaum, et al., 2014). While little has been done to directly investigate the relationship between consumers’ affect and format of media, there is data indicating that video news, rather than text news, may increase emotion among viewers. For instance, Yadav et al. (2011) found that when individuals watched videos of stories about families and individuals that had been affected by HIV/AIDs, they had a higher emotional response and were more engaged as opposed to reading the same stories through a text transcript. Furthermore, video news covering the 9/11 terrorist attacks were found to be more emotional than text news (Cho et al., 2003), but the effects of this have not been studied extensively. Taken together, these studies suggest that the format of news has an effect on emotion, and while it seems that video media has a larger effect than text media, more research is needed to understand this relationship.

The Current Study

The current study examined the effect of news consumption on affect. Affect is related to emotions; positive affect is characterized by pleasurable experiences, while negative affect is characterized by distress (Crawford & Henry, 2004). Affect is highly correlated with anxiety and depression, two mental health outcomes that might be especially relevant during the COVID-19 pandemic (Crawford & Henry, 2004). 

The purpose of the current study was to examine the effect of news format and personal relevance on affect. There has been little research comparing how affect is influenced by video versus text news. Furthermore, this study examined these relationships within the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. This is unlike the crises that were studied in the past, as the pandemic is a prolonged event, while the events of terrorist attacks or natural disasters are usually shorter and pose a different kind of threat to individuals. Personal relevance of news warrants further investigation in order to understand the role of this variable in the relationship between news consumption and mental health. Personal relevance might play a unique role during the COVID-19 pandemic because it is likely that most people have been affected by it in some form, which would increase the personal relevance of news related to COVID-19. Three hypotheses were proposed:

Hypothesis 1: Individuals who view personally relevant news will experience higher levels of negative affect than those who do not view personally relevant news.

Hypothesis 2: Individuals who watch video news will experience higher levels of negative affect than those who read text news.

Hypothesis 3: Video news that is personally relevant will result in the highest levels of negative affect, while text news that is not personally relevant will result in the lowest levels of negative affect.

Method

Participants

Students at Saint Louis University were asked to participate in a study examining personally relevant news and its effect on individual affect. Students were recruited via the SONA undergraduate pool of psychology students. Participants (N = 55) were undergraduate students aged 18-22 (M = 19.62), and most were female (76.4%) and white (67.3%). Given the nature of the SONA program, students were rewarded class credit for their participation in this study. Participation was completely voluntary, and all participants were over the age of 18. All guidelines established by the American Psychological Association were followed when collecting data, and data was only collected upon receiving approval from the IRB. 

Materials 

Demographics

The demographic form included basic questions regarding age, gender, year in school, race and ethnicity (Appendix A).

Positive and Negative Affect Schedule

The Positive and Negative Affect Schedule (PANAS) (Watson et. al., 1987) was used to measure affect. The PANAS is a self-report method of measuring individual positive and negative affect, wherein participants are asked to indicate the extent to which they feel different emotions related to affect (e.g., irritability, alertness, inspiration, nervousness, etc.). The PANAS consists of 20 items divided into two sub scales, positive and negative affect, measured on a Likert-type scale ranging from 1 (not at all) to 5 (extremely). The positive and negative affect sub scales have a test-retest reliability coefficient of 0.89 and 0.85, respectively (Watson et al., 1987). The PANAS has been widely used in both community and clinical contexts, and has been found to be a valid and reliable assessment tool in both contexts (Merz et al., 2013).

News Videos and Transcripts

         Participants were asked to watch or read news that is considered personally relevant or not personally relevant. Participants watched a series of news videos for 15 minutes or read the transcripts of those videos, and the news was considered to be of high personal relevance or low personal relevance. According to de Hoog and Verboon (2020), news that is considered high in personal relevance is viewed as posing a threat that could happen to the individual. Balzarotti and Ciceri (2014) defined news as personally relevant when the individual has directly experienced the event, or it has consequences concerning the individual. For this study, the sample will be college students. Therefore, news that was considered highly personally relevant to the sample focused on the physical or mental health threats to college students, or consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic for college students, such as being sent home from college (Figure 1). News considered to be of low personal relevance focused on threats and consequences of COVID-19 for elderly populations, such as increased health risks and isolation (Figure 2). See figures 1 and 2 for video image stills.

Procedure

Participants had the option to select the research study from a list of available research studies on SONA. Qualtrics was used to collect all survey responses and present participants with study information and the news videos or transcripts. Participants were first given an informed consent form that includes participant information and the contact information for the researchers. Participants were informed that they could decide not to take part in the study or leave the study at any time. The study was completed online with the subjects selecting the location to complete the study in. Participants self-selected the time to complete the study.

Each participant was randomly assigned to one of four groups. The first group watched highly personally relevant news videos. Another group read highly personally relevant news in text form. The third group viewed news videos that are less relevant to their demographic, and the last group read text news that is less relevant to their demographic. The video news groups watched a series of 2-4 minute news clips for a total of 14.5 minutes. The text news groups read transcriptions of these news videos. The videos were transcribed by the researchers and were kept as close to the original videos as possible, with some edits for clarity (Appendix C).

     Participants then completed the PANAS to measure positive and negative affect, which took no more than 10 minutes. Then, participants completed the demographics survey. All responses were completely anonymous. After completing the survey, participants read a debriefing statement in which they were told the hypothesis and objective of the study. It took participants no longer than 30 minutes to complete the study.

Statistical Analysis

  A 2×2 analysis of variance (ANOVA) was conducted to determine if there was a significant difference in affect after viewing media of high personal relevance and media of low personal relevance, and if there was a significant difference between the format the news was delivered in (e.g., video vs. text). The ANOVA was chosen because it allowed for the comparison of the mean scores of the four experimental groups.

Results

A 2 (High personal relevance, Low personal relevance) x 2 (Video news, Text news) ANOVA was conducted to examine the effects of personal relevance and format on individual affect. The hypotheses read as follows: hypothesis one states individuals who view personally relevant news will experience higher levels of negative affect than those who do not view personally relevant news. Hypothesis two states individuals who watch video news will experience higher levels of negative affect than those who read text news. Additionally, hypothesis three states video news that is personally relevant will result in the highest levels of negative affect, while text news that is not personally relevant will result in the lowest levels of negative affect.

The ANOVA found no main effect of personal relevance on affect or a personal relevance x news format interaction, F(1,51), p > .05. However, there was a significant main effect of news format on negative affect, F(1,51) = 6.76, p = 0.012. Specifically, participants in the video condition had significantly higher negative affect (M = 24.00, SD = 6.53) than those in the text condition (M = 19.22, SD = 7.43). There were no significant effects on positive affect, F(1,51), p < 1.00. This finding supports our second research hypothesis, which states that video news will result in more negative affect. Our other hypotheses were not supported. See Appendix D for means and standard deviations.

Discussion

Although past research demonstrates that news can have negative effects on mental health, it is not yet certain how personal relevance and news format influence this relationship when the news focuses on COVID-19. This study examined the role of personal relevance and news format within the context of COVID-19. Based on the results, only the second hypothesis was supported, which stated that video news will result in more negative affect compared to text news. These findings support past research, which found that a video narrative led to a greater emotional response in participants than a text narrative (Yadev et al., 2011), and video news coverage of 9/11 was found to be more emotional than text news of the same coverage (Cho et al., 2003).

The first hypothesis, which predicted that news with high personal relevance will result in more negative affect, and the third hypothesis, which predicted a personal relevance by format interaction, were not supported. These results suggest that news related to COVID-19 has a similar impact on affect regardless of personal relevance. Although past research provides evidence that news with high personal relevance leads to greater psychological distress, new research examining news about COVID-19 suggests otherwise. For instance, individuals had similar amounts of anxiety after watching news related to COVID-19 regardless of whether they had been diagnosed with COVID-19, had a loved one diagnosed with COVID-19, worked in healthcare, or had no personal connection to COVID-19 (Hamidein et al., 2020). An implication of these findings could include that many people perceive COVID-19 as a risk, regardless of personal relevance. Based on cognitive appraisal theory, an individual may experience increased emotion if they view the subject of the news as a threat (Lazarus, 1991). Furthermore, research suggests that feelings and affect are heavily involved in risk perception (Slovic & Peters, 2006). If participants in this study experienced similar perceptions of risk when watching news about COVID-19, this could explain why personal relevance did not influence affect.

One limitation of this study could be the personal relevance manipulation. It is possible that the low personal relevance condition was relevant to some participants, as a participant could have an elderly relative who was impacted by COVID-19. Although past studies define personally relevant news as coverage of an event that the individual experiences directly (Balzarotti & Ciceri, 2014), or as coverage of a threat that could happen to the individual (de Hoog & Verboon, 2020), news that does not pertain directly to an individual, but rather to the individual’s loved ones, could impact affect. Future studies could use a stronger manipulation of personal relevance and should consider using news unrelated to COVID-19 in order to truly examine this variable. Since COVID-19 has affected everyone in different ways, news coverage about COVID-19 will likely have some personal relevance to most participants. An additional limitation includes the small sample size, which reduces the power of the study.

This study suggests that video news leads to greater negative affect than text news, adding to the current body of knowledge. Although more research is needed to determine the role of personal relevance in news and its effects on mental health, this study suggests that news specifically related to COVID-19 has a similar impact regardless of personal relevance. Finally, this study corroborates past research and indicates that video news can negatively impact mental health, and future research could examine effective interventions to mitigate these effects.

NOTE: All appendices in PDF File

Works Cited

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