Generic Visuals in the News: the role of stock photos and simple data visualizations in assembling publics

Lead Research Organisation: University of Leeds
Department Name: School of Media & Communication


This project investigates the role that generic visuals play in assembling publics. By 'generic visuals', we mean images with standardized formats and appearances, which perform particular design functions and which circulate with increasing frequency in the news media. By 'assembling publics', we refer to a range of processes, including bringing groups of people together around shared interests and concerns, activating citizens to care (or not) about particular issues, making possible (or not) various forms of engagement, including democratic decision-making, and facilitating or inhibiting the spread of disinformation.

Employing the concept of assembling publics, we build on Warner's (2002) argument that publics are brought into being in a variety of ways. In other words, publics do not pre-exist efforts to inform and influence them; they come into being, or are assembled, in part through encounters with informational and communicative forms, such as the news media. These news media are not made up of words alone - they are also visual. However, even in the limited research which acknowledges the significance of visuals in the news, analyses prioritize arresting and iconic images, and recent studies of data visualizations in the media have likewise focused on those that are award-winning or considered beautiful. Yet what we call generic visuals increasingly populate journalism and other information sources, off and online, across mobile apps and other digital platforms. Given their ubiquity, understanding of the roles that these generic visual forms play in the processes listed above, or in assembling publics, is urgently needed. The 2015 image of Alan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach is an example of an iconic visual that brought people together around a shared concern, but do similar processes take place in relation to everyday, generic visuals?

The overarching aim of this research is therefore to develop new understanding of the role that generic visuals play in assembling publics, focusing on two distinct visual forms, stock photos and simple data visualizations. We will realize this aim by addressing these research questions:

1) How do practitioners involved in the production of generic visuals do their work and think about the visuals and the audiences who engage with them?
2) What are the semiotic characteristics, designed forms and specific uses of generic visuals? How do the formal properties of generic visuals contribute to assembling publics?
3) How do audiences make sense of and engage with generic visuals?

These questions will be addressed by combining methods from three scholarly traditions: production studies (RQ1, focusing on production); semiotics (RQ2, focusing on visual texts); and audience studies (RQ3, focusing on audience engagements) in an empirically grounded social semiotic approach. We will carry out our research in collaboration with three diverse partner organizations that produce and circulate generic images, concentrating on their online output. The first publishes a range of regional tabloids and a national tabloid newspaper; the second is a broadsheet newspaper; the third is a regional news organization. Following secondary analysis of datasets from our previous research with producers of data journalism, stock photos and data visualizations, we will carry out: fieldwork in each partner organization (RQ1); visual analysis of generic visuals produced and used by each partner (RQ2); and interviews with partner organization audiences (RQ3). Through a programme of impact activities with partner organizations, workshops designed in collaboration with an anti-disinformation charity collaborator, and an exhibition targeted at audiences, our research aims to inform professional practice and public perceptions in relation to generic visuals in the news.

Planned Impact

The new understanding of the role that generic visuals play in various social processes that will result from the research will be of interest to three stakeholder groups: a) professionals working with generic visuals in newsrooms; b) organizations tasked with addressing the recent growth of digital disinformation; and c) audiences who encounter, engage with and may be affected by generic images in their news consumption.

We aim to make a positive contribution to newsroom practice and to the work of anti-disinformation organizations in relation to uses of generic images, by sharing the understanding that we develop through this research with them and other relevant stakeholders. Working in partnership with three diverse newsroom partners, the project will provide professionals working with visuals in these newsrooms with insights into the impact that the generic visuals that they produce have and how audiences react to them. Our three newsroom partners are involved in the production and use of such images on a daily basis, but they do not have the time to reflect on these matters within the constraints of fast-paced, journalistic workflows. Our research will produce valuable insights for them, which will feed into their visual journalism practices.

Our research findings will also be of interest to organizations concerned to address the recent growth of digital disinformation. The role of visuals in the spread of disinformation is not well understood, and anti-disinformation organizations need empirical research to help them understand how images make meaning and are consumed in a disinformation context. The project aims to provide such organizations with insights into the role generic images play in the spread of disinformation. It will also provide them with an opportunity to reflect on the implications of our research findings for addressing this phenomenon, through workshops for relevant stakeholders, which will be organized in association with an anti-disinformation charity collaborator. Findings relating to the role of generic visuals in the spread of disinformation will also be of interest to newsroom professionals, who are concerned to counter uses of their visuals for these purposes.

As a result of our research, these two groups will be better informed about the roles that generic visuals play. This will enable newsroom professionals to use generic visuals in informed and reflective ways. Anti-disinformation groups will be better equipped to expand their fact-checking work to also include visual images.

A further objective is to raise public awareness of generic visuals and how and whether they play a role in assembling publics. We will achieve this objective through an exhibition of some of the generic visuals that have been the focus of our research, targeted at audiences, and by promoting our research findings in mainstream, digital and social media. The aim of these activities is for audiences to be better informed about the role that generic visuals play and more reflective in their engagement with them.

We aim to achieve these impacts through:
1. Involving news, anti-disinformation and other stakeholder organizations in the research.
2. Analyzing, translating and sharing findings with these stakeholder organizations.
3. An exhibition of 'generic visuals' aimed at news audiences.
4. Web, social media and media activity.
These activities are discussed in detail in the Pathways to Impact document.


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Description =Visuals Themselves=

In the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, images of the virus molecule and 'flatten-the-curve' line charts were inescapable. There is now a vast visual repertoire of vaccines, people wearing face masks in everyday settings, choropleth maps and both bar and line charts. These 'generic visuals' circulate widely in the news media and, however unremarkable, play an important role in representing the crisis in particular ways. We argue that these generic visuals promote banal
nationalism, localism and cosmopolitanism in the face of the crisis, and that they do so through the symbolic reiteration of a range of visual resources across news stories.

=Journalists Who Produce Generic Visuals=

(1) Visuals in general are playing an increasingly important design role within journalism (rather than solely, or most importantly, a content role), and generic visuals are often called upon to play a role that focuses more on style and layout than on journalistic substance.
(2) Second, the coronavirus crisis has only exacerbated a trend which has already been at work in the news business for many years: Hamster-wheelization (Starkman, 2010), i.e., the pressure to produce the largest amount of news content in as short a period as possible. This is particularly true in the case of data visualization and the daily need to produce graphs and charts describing the course of the pandemic, but it is also true of stock photos and the need to illustrate a large number of stories dealing with the sensitive and difficult subject of death.
(3) Third and finally, the journalists we interviewed expressed a great deal of ambivalence about generic visuals. Obviously, all the journalists we talked to were under a great deal of pressure to use these visuals, and all of them, in some way, noted their discomfort with the very term itself. And yet all of them simultaneously managed to distinguish their own use of generic visuals to the work that "other people" were doing.
Exploitation Route This work can serve scholars engaged in the increasingly important research on areas of AI visualization and the political role of images.
Sectors Government, Democracy and Justice