COLLEGE PARK, Md. – How important are links in online news – especially when explaining science, health and technology? New research from the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism suggests that non-expert audiences report more interest in and understanding of news when certain text structures are combined with certain links structures.

Dr. Ronald Yaros

Dr. Ronald Yaros

The study – by Professor Ronald Yaros, professor of multi-platform journalism –  tested stories about breast cancer and nanotechnology from the New York Times with 301 web users in a controlled lab environment. The study took into account typical “scanning” behaviors of online users. In complex news stories, links to “related websites” can significantly decrease audience interest and understanding.  Instead, Yaros says, links in a complex story should be specific and, ideally, open in a separate window that provides the reader with a definition or explanation.  Defining a medical term or showing a map where a particular disease is prevalent would be more effective in these types of stories.

“Interestingly,” Yaros says, “we found that combining these specific links with less complex news about things that most people know about also reduces understanding of the content. In less complex news, it appears explanatory links may be distracting to the reader. The bottom line is knowing when to combine certain types of links with certain types of text.”

These results could mean a new approach to digital storytelling and journalism education. “One implication of these findings for online journalists is that adding links – even to well written text – does NOT always enhance user interest and understanding of complex news,” said Yaros.  In education, although instructors of online journalism courses teach students the skills to embed links into web stories, this study suggests the need to stress how and when links should be combined with text to produce more coherent news that online audiences find interesting and understandable.

Specific examples can be found on the lab’s website at: http://bit.ly/news_structures. The published research abstract can be found at: http://scx.sagepub.com/content/early/recent.

For more information, please contact Prof. Ronald Yaros at 301.405.2425 or ryaros@jmail.umd.edu.