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Digital dissemination and visual communication in the time of COVID-19

Digital and visual communications are a crucial method in disseminating information during the COVID-19 pandemic. From slice-of-life diary pieces to public health information on guidance and symptoms, visual storytellers are using their platforms to share their stories and disseminate information. While digital platforms have the capacity to facilitate misinformation, they have also been utilised to ensure the spread of important, and potentially lifesaving, information. Following on from our Knowledge Exchange Workshops, in this blog post Shannon McDavitt, Research Assistant on ‘Comics in the time of COVID-19’, explores some of the AHRC-funded projects that are researching media communications and health messaging during the pandemic.

As a response to the pandemic, the AHRC launched a scheme to fund projects dedicated to understanding the impact of COVID-19. The Public Health, Communication and Healthcare Knowledge Exchange Workshop run by the Pandemic and Beyond Project allowed researchers working on similar research questions to come together to share their projects and exchange ideas and network with like-minded people. This workshop also gave the project teams a greater understanding of the role they are playing in the wider response to COVID-19, and of the issues being tackled. A key area of focus among these projects was health communication and public health messaging, and within those projects, there was a mutual understanding of the necessity of not only verbal or linguistic messaging, but of visual communication during the pandemic.

Images by Alexandra Alberda, Research Illustrator for AHRC Comics in the time of COVID-19 project

The dissemination of COVID-19 guidance is a key element to managing the pandemic. Due to social distancing and lockdown regulations, the pandemic has made social media and digital communication essential for public health communications. Social media has been a major outlet for this as it is part of daily routine for a large part of the population and has become an indispensable method of giving and receiving information. Although social media has been criticised as a platform for misinformation and fake news, if correctly used the government and public health authorities can benefit from a large platform that is accessible to many. This is something that designers and graphic storytellers are working on changing where visual data and social media are being used to create better methods of communications.

The power of images in communications is stronger than ever; online visual content is 40 times more likely to get shared and articles that include images every 75-100 words receive double the shares than those without (PWC 2017). During the pandemic, visual information has become more important for a wide range of reasons, including ensuring those who have difficulty reading, and interpreting a high amount of information have a means to understand what is being communicated. For example, the AHRC-funded project ‘Information Design for Diagnostics: Ensuring Confidence and Accuracy for Home Sampling and Home Testing’ led by Professor Sue Walker, investigates how user-friendly instructions, print and video are key to accurate use of tests, demonstrating how good visual communication is essential in managing the pandemic effectively.


Images by Alexandra Alberda, Research Illustrator for AHRC Comics in the time of COVID-19 project

Green and Myers (2010) argue that combining pictures and text enhances understanding and can help increase recall of health information. This is a major aspect of ensuring guidance is met in, for example, washing hands or how to correctly wear a mask and test from home. The AHRC-funded project ‘Comics in the time of COVID-19: Tracking data on web-based comics and evaluating their potential for communicating public health messages’ led by Dr Anna Feigenbaum develops the idea that comics can be an effective method of sharing public health messaging. As suggested, information that includes images are more likely to receive shares which is an important aspect of digital communication in the time of COVID-19. Visually, comics and imagery are easy to engage with compared to long pieces of text and are effective for a wide range of the population. As the written aspects are minimal and simplistic, they are accessible to a broad range of audiences, including the young and old. Since public health messages can be complex, these kinds of visuals can be especially useful where English is not a person’s first language, or those who have a difficulty reading written information and therefore can make for a powerful method of communication. Research suggests that we are better at learning and remembering content we’ve seen in pictures than text, a phenomenon known as Picture Superiority Effect. This makes comics a perfect candidate for the dissemination of important public health information to maintain and manage the pandemic.

Comics and visuals can communicate both risk factors and social issues surrounding an illness. Readers can relate to events and experiences, creating empathy (McAllister 1992). Although visual storytelling and public health messaging through social media may not be the only method needed to effectively spread information and manage the pandemic, the on-going projects funded by the AHRC show the power these aspects can have. Information that includes visual elements such as video, photographs and sketches have the power to reach a larger audience than without and can ensure information is interpreted in the correct way. This in turn can show the increasing accessibility of information needed for future guidance to the public when managing public health.

  1. PWC, 2017. [online]. Available from: https://www.pwc.com.au/the-difference/the-power-of-visual-communication-apr17.pdf [Accessed 10 Jun 2021].
  2. Nelson, D.L., Reed, U.S., & Walling, J.R. (1976). Pictorial superiority effect. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Learning & Memory, 2, 523-528
  3. Hanna, R., Rohm, A. and Crittenden, V. L., 2011. We’re All Connected: The Power of the Social Media Ecosystem. Business Horizons [online], 54 (3), 265-273
  4. Green, M., & Myers, K. (2010). Graphic medicine: use of comics in medical education and patient care. BMJ: British Medical Journal, 340.

Further information: Williams, D., 2007. What is “Graphic Medicine”? | Graphic Medicine [online]. Graphic Medicine. Available from: https://www.graphicmedicine.org/why-graphic-medicine/ [Accessed 10 Jun 2021].

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