Research Seminar: Generic Visuals in the News

‘Generic visuals’ circulate with increasing frequency in the media. A three-year research project investigated their public role through a combination of production, semiotic and audience research.

‘Generic visuals’ – images like stock photos and simple data visualizations, which have standardized formats and appearances – circulate with increasing frequency in the news media.

Despite our growing exposure to generic visuals, very little is known about the role that they play in relation to the assembling of publics.

Research into visuals in the news has tended to focus on iconic photos or award-winning visualizations and analyses of visual news media are therefore primarily studies of the spectacular. As a result, the mass of mundane images that surrounds us daily remains unacknowledged and under-researched.    

Our Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded research investigated the role that generic visuals play in ‘assembling publics’, that is, in 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 in promoting or inhibiting the spread of disinformation.

In other words, by researching multiple aspects of the ‘circuit of culture’ (Du Gay et al 1997), including the production, use and dissemination of generic visuals, their semiotic characteristics and design functions and audience engagement with them, we have explored whether generic visuals ‘assemble publics’ in the ways that other aspects of news media and political communication are said to.      

This research seminar will synthesize findings across the different strands of our research, highlighting how producers and audiences feel about this imagery as well as the ‘work’ that generic visuals do (or do not do) to assemble publics. We will conclude by speculating on the role of genericity in the future of news imagery, particularly in relation to producer and audience participants’ concerns with questions of trust and credibility as they make, use or consume generic visuals.

About the speakers

Giorgia Aiello is Professor of Sociology of Culture and Communication at the University of Milan (Italy).

C. W. Anderson is Professor of Sociology of Culture and Communication at the University of Milan (Italy).

Helen Kennedy is Professor of Digital Society at the University of Sheffield where she directs the Economic and Social Research Council Digital Good Network.