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Pay more attention to attention

“Focusing on exposure only tells half the story: Without knowing what a person pays attention to, we know only that a person clicked, not that they learned.”

Critics often blame the attention economy for elevating content that appeals to our baser instincts. The argument goes like this: Media outlets, eager to increase their market share of attention in a fragmented media environment, use digital metrics like pageviews to better understand what consumers want. That data then informs content decisions, resulting in more cats-playing-piano-type stories and fewer stories about policy. The more pageviews that cats playing piano get, the more incentivized outlets are to produce such content. As a result, traffic analytics become both the method and the objective.

In monetizing our gaze, the media environment responds to market forces that demand traffic as proof of consumer attention. The implication is that these analytics tell us what people pay attention to. But that assumption about attention is not supported by empirical evidence.

Metrics can tell reporters and editors that the audience for a story is, for instance, disproportionately mobile and driven by Twitter. It can even tell them how much time people spent on the page. But they don’t tell us how many people actually read the story.

What these metrics capture is exposure: a necessary but insufficient requirement for attention.

Attention is elusive, often cursory, difficult to measure, and it is essential to understanding news consumption. In a forthcoming book project, my co-author Johanna Dunaway and I use eye tracking to show the ways that attention conditions learning in a mobile news environment. Another recent study found that mobile app users learn less from news consumption than do people getting news from other sources, despite spending more time with news. This research shows us that focusing on exposure only tells half the story: Without knowing what a person pays attention to, we know only that a person clicked, not that they learned.

This distinction between attention and exposure is vitally important for the news industry because, unlike other products, the news is a consumption good — meaning people have to consume a story in order to appraise its value.

Instead of taking these characteristics into account, traffic-driven news decisions are motivated by exposure rather than attention, elevating proliferation and retention over comprehension. That may be a suitable strategy for platforms like Facebook, which are advantaged by time-in-app, regardless of whether users are just habitually scrolling. Such an information structure belies the attention required to lend news its value — and yet news judgements often draw on similar metrics like time-on-page.

In other words, cats-playing-piano may get the initial exposure, pageviews that can be reported back to advertisers — but did it garner enough attention to create value for the reader? Cat lovers though we may be (I actually prefer dogs), a story that merits only minimal attention is more likely to be forgotten and thus warrants little value-added for the source beyond that click. A story that earns attention, on the other hand, elicits more thoughtful engagement with the information and increases recall, likely motivating other desirable attitudes and behaviors like trust and return visits.

Though there are certainly circumstances under which traffic is the goal, the news industry cannot be both motivated and sustained by exposure alone. Long-term success requires attention as well. In other words, we need to start thinking about what happens after the click to truly leverage the greatest economic value of digital news. Mistaking clicks for attention distorts consumer demand to the detriment of the news industry and the public.

Kathleen Searles is an assistant professor of political communication at Louisiana State University.

Critics often blame the attention economy for elevating content that appeals to our baser instincts. The argument goes like this: Media outlets, eager to increase their market share of attention in a fragmented media environment, use digital metrics like pageviews to better understand what consumers want. That data then informs content decisions, resulting in more cats-playing-piano-type stories and fewer stories about policy. The more pageviews that cats playing piano get, the more incentivized outlets are to produce such content. As a result, traffic analytics become both the method and the objective.

In monetizing our gaze, the media environment responds to market forces that demand traffic as proof of consumer attention. The implication is that these analytics tell us what people pay attention to. But that assumption about attention is not supported by empirical evidence.

Metrics can tell reporters and editors that the audience for a story is, for instance, disproportionately mobile and driven by Twitter. It can even tell them how much time people spent on the page. But they don’t tell us how many people actually read the story.

What these metrics capture is exposure: a necessary but insufficient requirement for attention.

Attention is elusive, often cursory, difficult to measure, and it is essential to understanding news consumption. In a forthcoming book project, my co-author Johanna Dunaway and I use eye tracking to show the ways that attention conditions learning in a mobile news environment. Another recent study found that mobile app users learn less from news consumption than do people getting news from other sources, despite spending more time with news. This research shows us that focusing on exposure only tells half the story: Without knowing what a person pays attention to, we know only that a person clicked, not that they learned.

This distinction between attention and exposure is vitally important for the news industry because, unlike other products, the news is a consumption good — meaning people have to consume a story in order to appraise its value.

Instead of taking these characteristics into account, traffic-driven news decisions are motivated by exposure rather than attention, elevating proliferation and retention over comprehension. That may be a suitable strategy for platforms like Facebook, which are advantaged by time-in-app, regardless of whether users are just habitually scrolling. Such an information structure belies the attention required to lend news its value — and yet news judgements often draw on similar metrics like time-on-page.

In other words, cats-playing-piano may get the initial exposure, pageviews that can be reported back to advertisers — but did it garner enough attention to create value for the reader? Cat lovers though we may be (I actually prefer dogs), a story that merits only minimal attention is more likely to be forgotten and thus warrants little value-added for the source beyond that click. A story that earns attention, on the other hand, elicits more thoughtful engagement with the information and increases recall, likely motivating other desirable attitudes and behaviors like trust and return visits.

Though there are certainly circumstances under which traffic is the goal, the news industry cannot be both motivated and sustained by exposure alone. Long-term success requires attention as well. In other words, we need to start thinking about what happens after the click to truly leverage the greatest economic value of digital news. Mistaking clicks for attention distorts consumer demand to the detriment of the news industry and the public.

Kathleen Searles is an assistant professor of political communication at Louisiana State University.

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