Pandemics and the Art of Visual Persuasion

I, like many others in Melbourne, Victoria, made it a ritual to tune in to Premier Dan Andrews’ daily press briefings during the COVID-19 pandemic.

These briefings became a regular part of our daily routine as we listened to hear the latest updates on the state’s response to the virus.

But I couldn’t help but wonder what these briefings revealed about the government’s goals and priorities.

A recent study of the UK government’s daily press briefings during the first wave of the pandemic offers insights into the role of visual aids in shaping public understanding and government priorities.

The study, published in the Journal of European Public Policy, analysed 79 sets of slides used in the UK government’s press briefings between March and June 2020.

The researchers used a combination of methods, including counting the number of visual elements on each slide and analysing the meaning behind them.

The findings reveal a shift in the government’s focus over time.

In the early days of the pandemic, the government’s main goal was to share knowledge about the virus and its spread.

However, as time passed, the government began to take a more proactive approach, creating new policy-based narratives about the pandemic.

The study’s authors argue that this shift can be understood by thinking of the visual aids as “visual narrative assemblages.”

These assemblages, made up of material practices, political actors, and abstract policy objectives, help to create and communicate new logics for understanding and responding to the pandemic.

In this way, visual aids are not simply passive tools for communicating information, but active vectors for shaping public understanding and government authority.

The researchers also found that some visual elements were consistently present throughout the period, while others appeared at the beginning of the period, then became more irregular or disappeared altogether as time progressed.

They also found that some elements were introduced later in the period, and others underwent subtle yet significant changes.

This study is important because it sheds light on how governments use visual aids to communicate their policies and shape public understanding.

As the authors note, “Visualisation is not just a passive ‘inscription’ of political reality by elites, but rather a vector for performance that creates new political worlds and possibilities in their own rights.”

As governments grapple with crisis, it is useful to understand the role of visual aids in shaping public understanding and government action will be increasingly important.

Check out the research paper:

William L. Allen, Justin’s Bandola-Gill & Sotiria Grek, 2023, Next slide please: the politics of visualisation during COVID-19 press briefings, Journal of European Public Policy

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