After several months away from this column while, among other things, trying to refashion a j-school curriculum for the digital age, I thought we'd pick back up this month with some recent research you can use.
We know, for instance, that how we tell the news affect the way people perceive it, but it's always good to have some guidance as we choose our words and figures.
Numbers vs. units
We probably realize saying something will happen in 365 days is perceived differently than saying it will be a year. "Numerosity" is a long-established concept that people perceive as larger the expression using a larger number, even for the same idea.
Researchers Ashwani Monga and Rajesh Bagchi have added a new twist, however, suggesting that the units – or "unitosity" – used to express a concept are also important. It depends whether you have an abstract or concrete frame of mind.
As an example, if you're planning a vacation far in the future, weeks are probably more salient than days. But as the date draws closer and things become more concrete, traditional numerosity kicks in, and seven days seems longer than one week.
Monga, of the University of South Carolina's business school, and Bagchi, at Virginia Tech's, based their research on how consumers might perceive marketing messages. For instance, they say, if a shipment is delayed, managers might lessen the impact by using more abstract "weeks" instead of more concrete "days" to explain the delay.
But it can also apply to journalism.
Most of our readers are likely to be in an abstract frame without much specific information on a topic. So we use more general, easier to digest terms such as saying a decision has been delayed a week instead of seven days. As we get further into the story, we bring in more concrete numbers.
Monga and Bagchi didn't address this, but I'd suggest it goes beyond numbers to concepts overall – how many times did that writing teacher say to move from the general to the specific, and use just enough specifics in any one place to keep the piece moving but not bog it down?
It's one reason I urge writers to use concepts like "next year" instead of "2013."
However, some of that is changing as stories, now digital, can be read anywhere and anytime and we lose the time and physical frames of reference, so expect more exploration of this concept.
The article is in this month's – or June's, if you want to be more specific – issue of the Journal of Consumer Research.
Death metaphors deflect responsibility
When a business – or the economy – collapses, we often want to assign blame. Consider the continuing lament by some that almost no one has been charged for the mortgage mess that led to the Great Recession.
But the fault may be our use of death metaphors to describe what's happened, say researchers Ann E. Williams, Roei Davidson and Emily Chives Yochim.
Assigning responsibility is often based on the ties people make between what happened and who was involved, such as a company's executives.
But, they write in the autumn 2011 issue of Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly: "When death metaphors are used to anthropomorphize a company's bankruptcy, the actors internal to the company, such as executives, are less likely to be held responsible. … By analogy, we would hesitate to blame the deceased who suffered from a disease for his or her own death."
Their research tested perceptions of phrases such as an "ailing" business and "a last ditch effort to avoid financial death" as a description for seeking bankruptcy protection.
"The experiment suggests that death metaphors intensify the assignment of blame while deflecting the responsibility away from business executives," they write. This can be particularly significant in economic news, where many people do not have expertise and so rely on such cues, according to the researchers.
Instead of instinctively reaching for those trite phrases, journalists, they say, "need to think about how they employ metaphor, because the use of death metaphor can affect audiences' reactions to news coverage, which can lead readers to empathize with certain aspects of the story in significant, but perhaps unintended, manners."
Doug Fisher, a former AP news editor, teaches journalism at the University of South Carolina and can be reached at email@example.com or 803-777-3315.