Do visual media work differently to other media forms?
In short: yes… yes they do. Visual media provide a representation of something that would remain in text form and ultimately make this information more accessible for a wider audience. Unlike traditional media forms, visual media does not rely heavily on user interaction which enables widespread understanding of content and information.
An excellent representation of the way in which visual media allows access to difficult-to-understand data and information is the media’s use of visualisations to increase climate change awareness in an comprehensible manner. Climate change is a topic that has the potential to be clotted with scientific jargon and information which is useless to your everyday reader. Preach discusses (http://www.yaleclimatemediaforum.org/2011/09/visualizations-on-climate-change-issues/) how “strategic use of visualizations and graphics, particularly when they are designed to be interactive, can be key to presenting large amounts of climate information in an easily digestible form”. The accessibility of information through compelling and interesting graphics enables the public to access information which was near impossible to understand in its raw format. Even just a simple picture such as this (below) showing exactly how endangered polar bears are, can have the same effect as complex visualisation graphics:
McCandless created a visualisation of the two different sides of climate change (http://www.informationisbeautiful.net/visualizations/climate-change-deniers-vs-the-consensus/) to learn how hard it is for people to find accessible information about climate change online. His conclusion was as follows:
“What a nightmare”. I was generally shocked and appalled by how difficult it was to source counter arguments. The data was often tucked away on extremely ancient or byzantine websites. The key counter arguments I often found, 16 scrolls down, on comment 342 on a far flung realclimate.org post from three years ago. And even when I found an answer, the answers were excessively jargonized or technical.
Most of the info for this image is sourced from Realclimate.org. It’s an amazing blog staffed tirelessly by some of the world’s leading climatologists.
Unfortunately, the majority of the writing on there is so scientific and so technical, it makes the website nigh on useless to the casual, curious reader.
His observations ring true, with much of the data on Realclimate being extremely difficult to understand. I searched for ‘visualisations’ in my own research and was linked to the page http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/data-sources/. This webpage showed an interesting comparison of the raw data – which was impossible to understand for someone little scientific knowledge – and some of the other more synthesised data on climate change which included visual representations of data and was much more comprehensible. Sheppard (http://www.peer.eu/fileadmin/user_upload/opportunities/metier/course4/c4_geo-visualization_landscape_climate_change.pdf) discusses how these visualisations are essential in helping communicate climate change effectively.
The famous Hockey Stick climate change visualisation
Another example of visual media facilitating the understanding of overly scientific data is the RSA Animate series (http://comment.rsablogs.org.uk/videos/). This series of videos analyses concepts such as the division of the two halves of the human brain; the internet; and human choice and attempts to convey these complex messages through animation.
It is also possible just to look at any scientific documentary as a form of visualisation which attempts to make complex subjects more understandable.
NASA’s representation of perpetual ocean currents is a way of making something which would be near impossible to explain, much more explicable. To verbally explain the ocean’s currents over a two year period would take a ludicrous amount of time and even if it was explained succinctly it would be difficult to grasp and visualize exactly what had been explained. NASA’s visualisation assists the viewer by visually and succinctly representing (in just two minutes) these ocean currents.
Visualiation is also used in day to day life in order to explain complex topics. For example, have you ever drawn a picture as a method of conveying what you’re saying? Maybe even a diagram or a graph? These are forms of visualisation used on a daily basis.
Visualisation is clearly a process used in the media and in everyday life in order to make complex notions more understandable.