Finding empathy online

Illustration by WeBuyYourKids

Almost since the dawn of digital media, a meta question has hovered over us: Will the power of journalism diminish as people start reading everything on their phones, tablets, and laptops?

Will digital readers be able to concentrate on what they read? Will they develop the same connection and level of empathy for the people and ideas in stories when they read online? Will they find the stories as compelling? Will they engage with them in the same way?

Questions like these were at the heart of an ambitious research project that Columbia Journalism Review took on this past year. The first part of our endeavor involved an exhaustive look at past research on how readers respond to digital content versus print. One scientist, Maryanne Wolf, found that a digital reading experience often translates to less time spent on deep, focused reading—the kind that typically develops abstract, creative thinking. Other scientists argued that the internet may be altering the depth of our emotions and even our thoughts. This sounds unnerving at a time when reading on anything but a screen indicates old age or reverence for fading traditions.

Only our study produced surprising findings: digital readers who participated in our study responded to reading a story quite similarly to those who read it in print.

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A total of 64 college-educated adults, all volunteers, participated in our experiment. One group read a lengthy magazine piece in print, and the other group read the same piece online. We found that those who read the magazine narrative on a digital screen were just as likely as the print readers to be emotionally moved after reading the story. The two groups gave similar answers to almost every question. They both remembered the same level of information about the story when quizzed afterward. Both reported being engaged in the narrative at similar levels. And both groups showed an equal inclination to act on their emotional response to the piece, either by donating time or money to a cause suggested in the story. (The complete story can be found here.)

Why did we choose emotional engagement as the factor most crucial to examining the difference between print and digital reading? Because the strength of most journalism lies in its potential not only to inform but to drive people to action, hopefully to serve the public interest.

If our study is any gauge, the public interest remains secure. But, as with all social science research, there’s much still to learn. In our experiment, for example, the digital readers were in a quiet room, absorbing a piece they were told to read from beginning to end. A real digital user is more apt to be reading on her smartphone on a subway or walking down the hall on the way to a meeting. We hope future studies will find a way to take this into account.

Unfortunately, though, science can carry us only so far as we evaluate the virtues and perils of digital reading. And perhaps not yet, but after a point, it may become a fool’s errand. So what if we do discover that digital readers can’t concentrate? There’s no reversing the inevitable; only 23 percent of Americans said they got their news from print in the past week, compared with 75 percent who get it from digital, a new Reuters survey found. If the power of concentration is indeed worse when reading on a phone, then the goal should be to improve the phone.

Print will never lose its place in our heart. A folded newspaper will feel like a friend in a way a mobile phone never will. But that’s not going to bring back the paper.

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Elizabeth Spayd is the editor in chief and publisher of CJR. A version of this article appeared in the July/August issue of CJR under the same headline.