Whether an exemplar used in a news article is similar or dissimilar to the audience affects the audience’s empathy and willingness to take political action. The result comes from a study by Kim Andersen, Morten Skovsgaard and Erik Albæk, all of University of Southern Denmark, with Claes H. de Vreese, of University of Amsterdam.
The researchers conducted an online experiment with 575 Danes. The participants (control group excluded) viewed a news story about potential school closures. One version of the story featured a mother and her child, describing how the closures might affect them. The other version of the same story used no exemplars.
The participants were then asked about their empathy towards those affected by the school closures, and whether they would be willing to participate in campaigns to save the schools.
Compared to the control group, viewing either story version increased the participants’ willingness to take action. There were, however, significant differences depending on how similar the participant was to the exemplar (mother with a child). Fellow mothers became more and childless participants less empathetic after viewing a story version that used exemplars. The amount of “empathetic concern”, then, contributed to the participants’ willingness to take political action.
Using exemplars that are similar to the audience can be an effective way to encourage political activity. However, using dissimilar exemplars can backfire, leaving the audience feeling less empathetic and less likely to participate than if no exemplars had been used, the authors warn.
The article “The Engaging Effect of Exemplars” was published by The International Journal of Press/Politics. It is available online on the publisher’s website (free abstract).
Picture: Untitled by Pavlofox, licence CC0 1.0.