Saturday, February 11, 2006

The Importance of The Visual
Visual communicators often place more emphasis on the visual rather than the verbal. It is believed images hold an audience's attention more readily than does a great deal of text to read or a talking head on TV. I came across the following passage recently. It relates to a current trend in news reports to convey stories visually by means of re-enactments.

Long, complicated stories don't work well on television because a viewer might change channels. Similarly, images are dramatic and emotional to rivet the viewer to the content of the program (so the viewer will be ready to watch the ads)...As economic pressures become greater and advertising dollars become scarcer, the tabloid journalism mentality--the idea that anything can be aired as long as there are pictures--becomes a part of mainstream journalistic practice.

Lester, Paul Martin (2006). Visual Communication. Images With Messages, 4th edition. Belmont, CA: Thomson Higher Education. p. 87.

Almost the same day as I read this, I watched a TV news report of a tragic drunk driving accident, which confirmed Dr. Lester's statement. Michael Sanchez had just graduated high school and his entire future lay ahead of him. Sadly, his life was cut short by a car wreck following a celebration in which he and other people drank alcohol.

The news video shows a low camera angle from the car's point of view as it jumps a curb and collides with a tree. Then the video cuts to actual news footage of the wrecked car. A fast music track and quick video editing imparts an MTV-music-video quality to the report. The story flashes back to a re-enactment of the celebration. Blurred video communicates the intoxication of the celebrators. The next re-enacted scene cuts to a close-up shot of the young man's legs as he staggers to his car.

See the video for yourself at It's in Spanish, but the message is clear. You have to register for free, and see the video via Windows Media Player 10.

Ten years ago, news stories relayed information verbally. A reporter would verbally state the details. For variety, witnesses were interviewed, and they conveyed information verbally as well. Video or film footage was gold, but journalistic integrity was prized above the ability to show a video. Staged re-enactments were considered unethical, as the videographer might color the story from a biased point-of-view. Whenever someone staged a re-enactment, it was clearly labeled as such. Notice the lack of such a label in the news story linked above.

Today, there is a controversy as to whether the importance of visuals outweigh the importance of an unbiased presentation, or even if literacy is on the decline due to heavy reliance on visuals. We must keep in mind that as communicators, we are responsible for the roles our individual hands play in shaping society. Give audiences credit for thinking. It would be a self-fulfilling prophecy to dumb-down mass communications, as the result would be dumber audiences and a dumber society.

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