No points for style? Analysis of the psychological effects of journalistic writing conventions

Open Access
Appelman, Alyssa Jill
Graduate Program:
Mass Communications
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
February 10, 2015
Committee Members:
  • Michael Grant Schmierbach, Dissertation Advisor
  • Michael Grant Schmierbach, Committee Chair
  • S. Shyam Sundar, Committee Member
  • James Dillard, Committee Member
  • James Ford Risley, Committee Member
  • Journalism studies
  • Media effects
  • Cognitive processing
  • Experimental analysis
Journalistic editing has remained fairly constant over time, despite ongoing changes to the media landscape. Traditional skills are still taught to journalism students and still employed in traditional newsrooms. This study sought to determine the psychological effect of journalistic writing conventions on modern audiences. Through the paradigm of dual-processing models of persuasion (i.e., the Elaboration Likelihood Model and the Heuristic-Systematic Processing Model), this study explores two possibilities: Do readers notice mistakes and then consciously decide not to trust the content? Or do mistakes serve as distractions that unconsciously inhibit understanding? In other words, are errors heuristic cues, or are they inhibitors that block in-depth processing? A between-subjects experiment (N = 504) was conducted to observe the relationship between errors and perceptions. Participants were shown news articles with various mistakes (i.e., grammatical errors, AP style errors, and inverted pyramid structure errors) and responded to questions about their perceptions. Participants also were put in either a high-motivation or low-motivation condition to determine whether perceptions differed based on attention. Results showed no significant effects of errors on recall, writing quality, message credibility, or informativeness. These results held regardless of which errors were considered and which article was read. Power analysis showed that the sample was large enough to detect even a small effect size. This suggests that the effects are either contingent on study design or no longer existent. Future studies could determine whether such effects are still present. If, as this study suggests, these effects can no longer be found, then we could be observing a shift in the way readers view historic standards for writing. Based on this study, readers are more willing to overlook style and structure errors than has been found in previous research. Therefore, this study proposes that journalists and journalism educators in the 21st century need to rethink the emphasis on style in the newsroom and the classroom.