Are visuals in your blind spot?

Last week there was a big controversy on Twitter.

But it wasn’t about politics—it was about pictures. Journalism. Visual storytelling.

The Poynter Institute, an established global resource for journalists, posted this article: “These tools will help you find the right images for your stories“.

It did not go over well. It instructs (written word) journalists to use whatever means necessary to find free, pre-existing images online to use in their articles. Nowhere does it suggest working with a photojournalist, an illustrator, or a designer to do any real visual reporting. The article’s blindness assumed that a visual is only good for attracting attention online once you’ve written something—an afterthought at best, or something to skip at worst.

Visual decoration might be fine for amateur bloggers and social media marketing hacks—but not for professional journalists.

Why? Because visuals are content, just as much as words. Both are important on their own, but stories are better when they work together.

In journalistic circles, the outrage was justified not just because the suggestions in the article have ethical issues, but because it’s astounding that in 2018 professionals responsible for sharing important, accurate, and timely information treat visuals as mere “slap together” decoration.

Of course, I’m biased. I started my own ‘zine in high school with some good friends. I reported on events, shot photos, drew pictures, and designed pages because I loved telling stories. I went on to get a BFA in Picture Editing and Page Design from the School of Visual Communication at Ohio University. I actually went to Poynter in the ’90s and attended the Kalish Visual Editing Workshop in the ’00s. I worked in a newsroom for almost a decade with some reporters and editors who appreciated visual content, and some who did not. And while I’m no longer in journalism, I still help people tell stories using a combination of pictures and words.

The Poynter post and the fallout made me consider how people think about images—in general. Once we see a powerful photo, it can have a real emotional impact. Once we see clear charts and data visualizations, they help us make sense of dense or confusing data. Once we see a quality infographic, it can help us understand a complex story.

Upon seeing a visual, the visual is appreciated. For many, though, imagining a powerful visual is just too difficult. So too often, early in the process of figuring out how to tell your story, leaders and innovators gravitate to words and stock art and don’t consider making quality visual storytelling an integral part of the package.

Pictures, strangely, just aren’t part of the big picture.

Involving visual communicators early in a project—whether reporting the news or promoting a new product, process, or idea—is a way to conceptualize, capture, and create meaningful and persuasive content… content that connects not just on an emotional level, or just on a rational level, but in a way that combines both and enhances peoples’ understanding of something, whether it’s an object, an event, a person, an opportunity, or even an idea.

Things like business communications, change management, and marketing are not comparable to journalism. They’re very different worlds. But just take a moment to stop and think—if visual storytelling is in some professional journalists’ blind spots, is it in yours too?