A study at the University of Missouri says that readers devote more attention and memory to news about local health threats than news about distant, or non-local, health threats .
For the study, the researchers examined the physiological effects of reading threatening health news online.
"Although journalists have often prioritised negative and local stories, there has been limited evidence to support that approach until now," said Kevin Wise, assistant professor of strategic communication in the MU School of Journalism.
The study is one of only a few that used physiological response to examine how people respond to reading text.
And the results indicated that people have an inherent mechanism that enables more attention to be given to information that is localized and negative, said Wise.
"It seems ironic, but the majority of the time that people spend online is spent reading text. Therefore, identifying how people process and respond to text is critical to understanding the cognitive and emotional processing of all interactive media," said Wise.
In the study, they measured the physiological responses, including heart rate, of participants as they read news stories about either local or distant health threats.
And it was found that reading high-proximity, or local, health news elicited slower heart rate than low-proximity news, an indication that more cognitive resources were allocated to the local news.
In addition, participants more accurately recalled details from local health threats compared to distant threats.
"It's logical to assume that people will be more likely to take protective or preventative action after reading about a local health threat. If journalists can increase the awareness of threats in local communities, then people will have opportunities to act upon that information," said Wise.
The study has been published in the journal Communication Studies.