IntroductionThe storytelling formula adopted across the local TV news industry looks similar to what’s been used for generations. Yet the possibilities for innovation are growing by the day.
For several years now, our research project, Reinventing Local TV News (RLTVN), has been looking at this gap between practice and possibility.
A summary of our 2021 research findings on using animation in video news storytelling from the Reinventing Local TV News Project at Northeastern University
The central questions of our study: How can the storytelling that a new generation of viewers experience on their screen––whether on a massive flat screen, or more likely on a tiny mobile device––align with the new expectations and new ethos of the era? What could the future of TV news look and feel like to viewers in the digital age?
In our latest study, we have spent the past two years focusing on the use of animation and enhanced graphics. With support from the Stanton Foundation, an interdisciplinary team made up of journalists, researchers, and industry experts from Northeastern University’s School of Journalism, analytics firm SmithGeiger, and local stations WLS-TV ABC7 Chicago and WCVB-TV NewsCenter 5 Boston, conducted a series of surveys and experiments to determine the best way for TV news stations to reinvent their brands and enhance their storytelling to meet the changing expectations of contemporary audiences.
"The power of animation is significant,” says Seth Geiger, whose firm helped lead the survey for the project. “As we look at new ways to serve our audiences more effectively, to make our stories more compelling to watch, more memorable, more meaningful, it does seem without question like a worthwhile investment for stations to make.”
Northeastern’s research in part one of the project, completed in 2019, created scaffolding for this most recent phase of partnerships and experiments. Our earlier project, which resonated with stations across the country, prompted us to ask a new set of questions: How could animation and enhanced graphics fit into a newsroom’s workflow? And how could we test, at even greater scale, how audiences respond to video innovation of various kinds––the use of animated charts and maps, for example, and other specific visual storytelling tools?
Station partnershipsTo kick off the RLTVN project’s second phase, we created two new roles at our partner test stations, WLS-TV in Chicago and WCVB-TV in Boston. Two recent graduates with backgrounds in animation, Adriana Aguilar and Bob Curran, took on the role of Visual Content Producer (VCP) at each station, partnering with newsroom producers, reporters, photographers, and editors to apply innovative storytelling techniques in real-time.
Adriana and Bob worked on all kinds of stories in the newsroom, from local interest pieces to national investigative reports. Each VCP’s supplementary content sought to make segments stand out and shine in the cluttered information diet of a typical news consumer. This was done by adding data visualization such as graphs, charts, and maps; animated sequences to explain special processes or how the timeline of a story unfolded; or simply highlighting priority information with emphasis text and icons.
Below are examples of the kinds of the work the VCPs produced:
Bob Curran’s highlight reel from WCVB-TV:
Adriana Aguilar’s highlight reel from WLS-TV:
“Adriana brought a dynamic to the newsroom, a new way of thinking, a fresh perspective that everyone embraced,” says Jennifer Graves, Vice President and News Director at WLS-TV ABC7 Chicago. “It was terrific to see some of our longtime storytellers as they mapped out their stories, say, ‘I wonder what Adriana could do with this information?’”
The graphic sequences the VCPs created proved to add significant value to local television broadcasts, garnering a higher engagement rate overall. We were excited to learn that animation improved audience responses to, and retention of, all kinds of story topics––from political processes to public health.
“In a business where sometimes hundredths of a point or tens of a point can make the difference, I'm always looking for points of distinction and tiebreakers,” says Bill Fine, the recently retired General Manager at WCVB-TV Boston. “This is absolutely a point of distinction if nobody else is doing it. And it's definitely a tie breaker too.”
Experiments and findingsAll of this work “in the wild” set us up for another key part of the project: controlled testing of these videos with large samples of viewers.
We again partnered with trusted industry research firm SmithGeiger, and this time fielded online experiments with more than 1,000 viewers, from the Chicago and Boston markets, where our station partners are located. We tested a variety of videos that had actually run in the markets against a version of the videos that had been stripped of their enhanced features. In other words, we tested animation- and graphics-enhanced videos against conventional versions, randomizing which versions were seen first.
In subsequent posts for RTDNA, we will unpack more details of our findings, but here are some topline results.
General consumer views of local TVWe first wanted to understand how news tastes and needs are changing at a general level. In the survey portion of the experiment, we asked various questions of a sample of 500 persons in each market, cohorts that roughly conformed to the demographics of each city along the lines of gender, age, race, and more.
When making decisions about when, where, and for how long they will tune into the news, viewers in Chicago and Boston said they value coverage that: (a) captures the facts, (b) is unbiased and transparent, and (c) is easy to understand. More than two-thirds of respondents said that providing thorough and comprehensive news coverage, as well as making the news clear and easy to understand, were among the top reasons driving their decision to tune into local news.
Of course, all of these top “news drivers” are theoretically reinforced by the use of animation and graphics. But does animation really work?
It does. And we were pleased to see the data prove the case.
As mentioned, we A/B-tested animated and conventional videos. Below is an example of each, on the same story:
WLS Police Stops Conventional Video
WLS Police Stops Animated Video
WCVB Contact Tracing Conventional Video
WCVB Contact Tracing Animated Video
After viewing the local news stories that took a fresh approach to animation and graphics, viewers preferred that style across the board, with audiences more likely to rate the animated stories as clear, compelling, and memorable. The graphically-enhanced stories were generally perceived both as more relevant in content and resonant in tone. Animation also captured positive descriptions in the open-ended questions we posed. Viewers expressed that animation “makes it easier to understand the story,” “makes [the story] very interesting and entertaining to watch,” and “helps to reinforce important points in a story.”
In addition to the story-specific findings, consumers in our survey substantially shifted their views on local news overall. Specifically, we noted an increase in: (a) the value placed on the graphic element of a story; and (b) impressions about the ability of animation and graphics to better convey a timeline of events.
Several key themes emerged that might be valuable to stations’ strategies in the future:
- General favorability, satisfaction, and interest: Across all stories shown, the animated stories beat the conventional stories in terms of percentage of respondents who held “very favorable” views of the news story. Viewers also found the stories more satisfying when they included animation and graphics, as opposed to wishing the stories had included more or less detailed information. Viewers also ranked the animated stories as more interesting to watch.
- Young demographics: Young people (ages 18-24) in particular seem to appreciate innovations in storytelling. Prior to viewing animated local news videos, only 50% of this group said they liked to see animation and graphics in local news stories; that number jumped to 70% after seeing new possibilities. And in fact, it wasn’t just younger persons who were happy: 41% of persons ages 45-54 initially said they like to see graphics and animation in local news, and that number crossed the halfway mark to 54% after exposure to our animated video versions.
- Comprehension and orientation: Viewers shown videos with animation and graphics generally responded favorably when asked if these new forms of storytelling help better convey the timeline, location, and sequence of events; affirmative answers to these questions all rose by 10 percentage points or more. However, we went beyond gathering impressions of a story’s memorability, and actually quizzed their comprehension of specific items mentioned in the story. Maps, charts, and motion graphics sequences did indeed increase the amount of information viewers retained from a news story.
- Willingness to share or discuss with others: Graphically sleek stories are more shareable. Viewing the animated video version consistently raised participants’ self-reported willingness to share on social media or discuss with someone they know.
- Willingness to watch more often and implications for station loyalty strategy: Viewers are more likely to watch a station with improved graphics. In fact, our survey results suggest that the effective use of animation can help a station recruit customers loyal to competing stations, while continuing to satisfy, and even improve their standing with, their own core viewer base. When asked if they would be more inclined to watch local news that had detailed animation and graphics explaining the news story, viewers generally responded positively to watching examples, with support levels rising from 44% to 56%.
“I think (animation) is a very powerful tool,” says WLS-TV’s Graves. “Anything that you can do to make your product stand out in the crowd and differentiate your product, I think is worth looking at.”
In our next post here at RTDNA, we unpack in more detail the experience of our partnerships with WLS-TV and WCVB-TV. There is a lot to say about these “in the wild” experiments––and a lot of lessons to share that might be useful to the 700-plus other local TV news stations across the country.
We will wrap up the series, too, with more data from the project overall, and a final post laying out action steps for stations interested in advancing this approach to video storytelling and further engaging their audiences.
If you’re interested in the project, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us. We would be happy to advise, chat about our experiences, or hear about yours. Contact project lead Mike Beaudet at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mike Beaudet and John Wihbey are professors at Northeastern University’s School of Journalism. Anna Campbell is a Video Innovation Scholar in the graduate program at Northeastern. Beaudet is also an investigative reporter for WCVB-TV Boston.