Media researchers say animated news reports are detrimental to youngsters

Animated news reports are increasingly popular, but media researchers warn they blur the line between fact and fiction, writes Vivian Chiu

PUBLISHED : Monday, 06 January, 2014, 9:56am
UPDATED : Monday, 06 January, 2014, 10:03am

Forget objective reporting. Young people are not reading newspapers any more. The line is blurring between fact and fiction in the digital age, as sensational journalism comes alive on the mobile video screen.

Launched in 2010, Apple Daily's virtual world of animated news has captured the public's imagination. It also interested two Baptist University media researchers, who are more concerned than entertained by the recent changes.

It clouds our judgment of the incident and may even compromise the judicial process
Janet Lo, Baptist University

Janet Lo Wai-han, a PhD communications student, and Dr Benjamin Cheng Ka-lun, a creative communications senior lecturer, describe how producers reconstruct a breaking news story by mixing news footage with computer-generated imagery (CGI) in the video clip.

"By using computer graphics, all the missing scenes and action of the news event are re-enacted in the virtual world. The minute-long clip is packed with drama," Lo says.

The colourful daily clips are shown on YouTube and the newspaper's websites in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

With their graphical depictions of, and focus on, sex and crime, the clips have attracted millions of views and are distributed worldwide by Reuters and other news services. However, the Taiwanese government recently blocked the videos from local television news stations because it disapproves of their salacious content.

Likewise, Lo and Cheng believe society needs to view this mixing of fact and fiction with a critical eye. "These dramatised videos, which lack verification and credibility, are presented as news reports to the public," says Cheng says.

The researchers conducted three studies on young viewers over the past two years to gauge their perceptions of the reliability and objectivity of animated news.

In 2011, a group of college students were asked to evaluate the credibility of two video reports of a fist fight that erupted over someone leaning on a MTR pole during rush hour.

The first video began and ended with footage of the police escorting the suspects out of the station. The middle section is an animated reconstruction of the two suspects arguing and swinging their fists at each other, based on witness accounts. The second video is a regular news report of the same incident with no animation.

Results showed that the two video versions are rated by the students as equally credible.

"The students are quite unaware of the interspersing of real and animated footage. Very often the producers inject their personal views and creativity into the story, but people just passively watch the whole show without detecting the dramatisations," Lo says.

Interviews with another group of college students revealed that they watch 45 minutes to eight hours of animation news per week. The top reason for doing so was for entertainment, followed by a desire to gain news knowledge, and then just passing time.

"When young people watch animation news as entertainment, they'll treat serious news reporting as entertainment also. They don't analyse or think critically about what they see," Cheng says.

To further investigate viewers' responses to the dramatic content of animated news, the pair showed college and high school students animated and regular news reports of physical and sexual assault incidents.

The vivid animated presentation makes the subjects feel they are part of the scene. Consequently, the subjects, who became emotionally involved with the characters in the video, empathise with the victims and condemn the suspects.

Moreover, the videos depict preliminary investigation details and motives attributed to the suspects that are purely speculative, but in the production process allegations may merge with the facts so that the whole story becomes real.

"While we know that animation cannot reflect reality, it clouds our judgment of the incident and may even compromise the judicial process during a trial," Lo says.

In cases of sexual crimes, Lo is worried the videos may harm the victims, who had to relive the tragedy through the re-enactment. Also the videos' graphic depictions can give viewers ideas on how to imitate the act - by showing a suicide procedure, for example.

The studies indicate that while college students perceive animated news to be as credible as regular news, high school students consider it to be 17 per cent more credible than regular news. "We're worried that animation news may affect the youngsters' judgment of reality. Those who lack independent, analytical thinking are easily influenced by the video's assumptions," Lo says.

During the study, they discovered that students who watched the animated video had a better memory of the story as they accurately recounted the sequence of events.

Animation news could be used as a teaching tool. For example, a video's graphic depiction of a volcanic eruption in motion can explain the natural phenomenon to the students more effectively and comprehensively than the textbook, Lo says.

Lo and Cheng hope the results of their unique investigation will raise concern in society about the effect of animation news, especially among youngsters.

"News reporting formats are continuously renewing, as words and images transcend beyond the news print to the multimedia and virtual world," Cheng says. "The news is constant. The media is neutral. It all depends on how we use it."

To be informed, we watch serious news reports from a detached perspective and process the information. However, many young people who are tuned to animation news eagerly await the drama to unfold, hanging onto the intricate plot details, dialogue, action, special effects, background music and commentary. They can barely distinguish between animated and real images, Cheng says.

They are worried that when youths treat watching animation news as entertainment, they look for the most exciting videos to watch, rather than trying to learn about what is happening in the world.

"So, instead of just reporting the news, producers will make an effort to dramatise or exaggerate the news story and headline to attract website traffic, and in the process the story has lost its objectivity and credibility, which viewers may not be aware of," Lo says.

Lo and Cheng want the government to strengthen media education and introduce the subject in primary school. "Schools should teach students how to use news information and exercise their critical and analytical thinking to judge what they see. They should challenge the validity of the animated footage and not accept everything as real," Lo says.

At home, parents should guide their children when they watch the animated news.

When Freda Man watches video news with her six-year-old son, Edward, she explains to him the reality of the animation and its flaws.

Most of the videos hardly made an impression on Edward. But one video, which shows a girl repeatedly slapping her boyfriend, scared him. When he watched a video about a poor mother and her malnourished baby, he felt sympathy for them.

"When he gets older, I will not be able to supervise his viewing computer, and so I have started to offer him other choices by encouraging him to read newspapers.

"We need to teach our children to analyse and evaluate the credibility of the news," Freda says.

Lo and Cheng believe media outlets need be more conscientious in using animation to report news.

They hope the news industry can also innovate and insert more social analysis into the news reports.