The clear distinction between visual media and other forms lies with the way information is ‘coded’. Visual media can be quite literal. An image for example, is a graphic depiction of the very thing it represents. If we consider a text, information is transmitted through words on a page. The words are representative of a particular meaning; however because they are words, they are symbolic, they do not necessarily represent what they intend to represent. It is the reader’s interpretation of these signs which determines the meaning that is taken from them.
Our interpretation of images is different because what we see in an image is essentially what the image is. Of course there are exceptions to this, such as art. I don’t think the literal nature of images means that they are necessarily more accurate than other forms of media, they just operate in different ways.
A good way to demonstrate this is through the ‘hockey stick’ data visualisation of global temperature levels. The original graph would indicate a clear trend in temperature rises, yet a revised version of the same graph depicts relatively no change. I think that it is often easy to observe images as being the legitimate truth when in fact they can be just as biased as words. This is especially relevant when visual media is taken out of context. Words on a page can be crafted to depict a particular angle and in the same way data visualisations which are constructed through information can be used to demonstrate a particular viewpoint.
Our ability as an audience to interpret the information we consume means that we can either agree or disagree to statements being made. The climate change debate exemplifies this well. The written arguments of sceptics and scientists can be analysed and debated by readers, however the visualisations which attempt to communicate the same information are in a way concrete representations of what is being argued. Regardless of whether the graph is right or wrong, it works to legitimise the claims of the individual. The casual observer can engage with the text to a greater extent, and create their own informed opinions, which without the inclusion of visual aids, may have not been possible.
Visual media work to create a new level of understanding. The cartoon videos of the RSA website accompany commentary from scholars and lecturers in order to aid in the explanation of concepts and ideas which are trying to be communicated on a verbal level. What results is increased engagement with the public sphere. The verbal component would likely only appeal to individuals in a particular field, yet the visual component breaks these boundaries enabling the content to be comprehended more easily and therefore appeal to a wider audience. Essentially, this changes what we define as academic material. In a sense it’s popularised by a cartoon, yet manages to maintain the credibility of academic material. The merging of these two distinct forms of publishing create a new form that broadens the relevance of the material to new publics.
Anon. (2009) ‘The Global Warming Skeptics versus the Scientific Consensus’, Information is Beautiful, <http://www.informationisbeautiful.net/visualizations/climate-change-deniers-vs-the-consensus/>
RSA Animation (2011), ‘RSA Animate; Choice’ <http://comment.rsablogs.org.uk/videos/>