Representative photos improve recall
People remember concrete news stories 60% better than abstract ones, according to a study by a professor at the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University.
Adding photos to news stories increased recall by 65%.
For the study, professor Prabu David had 24 journalism students review 32 100-word news stories. Half were abstract; half, concrete. Half of the stories had photos; half did not.
The students recalled, on average, 10 stories. Of those:
- Students remembered an average of 6.21 concrete stories, but only 3.88 abstract ones, a difference of 60%.
- They remembered 6.29 stories with photos, but only 3.8 without, a difference of 65%.
- They remembered 1.95 more concrete stories with photos than those without, but only .54 more abstract stories with photos than those without — a difference of 261%.
Concrete vs. abstract news
Why the difference?
News stories can be concrete (covering incidents) or abstract (covering issues).
Concrete words refer to objects, materials, people or events. Apple and balloon, for instance, are concrete words.
They paint pictures in readers’ heads, giving them a sensory, or visual experience. Those pictures give readers a second way to process the information — visual as well verbal.
Add a concrete image, and this “visual-verbal overlap” makes it even easier to process and remember the story.
That’s not true with abstract words, which refer to concepts that can’t be experienced by the senses. Freedom and justice, for instance, are abstract words.
Readers can’t process these issue-driven stories visually, which means they have only one way to go: verbally.
It’s easy to illustrate concrete event, like an accident. But an abstract idea, like rising inflation, doesn’t lend itself to a representative photo.
Take a story about the devaluation of the Mexican peso. One U.S. newspaper ran it with a wire photo of worried stockbrokers on a trading floor in Mexico — not exactly a representative photo of the topic.
Only representative, or concrete, photos help people remember the news, according to David’s study. Purely decorative images do not.
People remember 57% more concrete stories.
In another study, David had 24 undergraduate journalism students review a story about how the space program has returned benefits we enjoy in our daily lives.
Half read a concrete story; half an abstract one.
Half the students who read the concrete story also saw concrete clip art:
- A picture of a camcorder for camcorder
- A long camera lens for long-distance photography
- A computer chip for computer chip
Half the students who read the abstract story also saw abstract clip art:
- A space craft for exploration
- The Declaration of Independence for document preservation
- A roller-coaster for G-force research
After reading the story, the students read unrelated news stories for 30 minutes. Then the researchers asked students to recall the story.
The students recalled, on average, 12.84 items from the story. Of those:
- Students remembered an average of 7.84 concrete items, but only 5 abstract ones, a difference of 57%.
- They remembered 7.38 stories with photos, but only 5.46 without, a difference of 35%.
People remember 47% more stories with concrete photos.
In a third study, David had 24 undergraduate journalism students review a story about celebrities winning a community service award.
Each participant saw 30 celebrity stories. Half of the celebrities were represented by a color head shot; the other half, without the head shot.
The students recalled, on average, 14.71 stories.
Of those, students remembered an average of 8.75 stories with photos, but only 5.96 without, a difference of 47%.
Other benefits of concrete copy
In a fourth study, journalism students correlated concrete stories and images with increased:
- Mental imagery
How can you make your stories more memorable by making them more concrete? And how can you add more concrete images to your news coverage?
Sources: Prabu David, “News Concreteness and Visual-Verbal Association: Do News Pictures Narrow the Recall Gap Between Concrete and Abstract News?” Human Communication Research, Vol. 25, No. 2, December 1998, pp. 180-201
TJ Larkin & Sandar Larkin, “Concrete words lead to better performance,” Larkin Page No. 31, March 2006