‘Using visual images in narrative and non-narrative messages’ by senior research fellow Fuyuan Shen

November 19, 2020 • Fuyuan Shen

Fuyuan Shen

Does adding visuals to stories make them more effective in communicating issues and changing individuals’ attitudes? This is the research question that I; Michail Vafeiadis, Auburn University; and Jiangxue Han, Appalachian State University, examined in our recent publication in the International Journal of Communication.

As part of our research project, “News storytelling through images: Examining the effects of narratives and visuals in news coverage of issues,” we conducted an experiment in which participants read narrative or nonnarrative news reports with and without matching visuals.

The messages we used focused on the issue of GMO farming and its impact on the health of individuals. Specifically, our messages focused on the health impact using agrochemicals in the agriculture industry, which has gained significant media coverage in recent years.

Participants in the study were college students recruited from several communication classes. They were asked to read different versions of the news reports online, and then they completed a survey. We measured participants’ transportation into the stories, their sympathy for individuals affected by GMO farming, and their overall attitudes toward the issue. 

Results suggested that adding visuals to narratives as well as non-narratives made both types of messages more effective in generating transportation into the messages and developing sympathies for individuals that appeared in the messages.

Consistent with previous studies, the results showed that a narrative news article about GMOs generated more transportation and sympathy than a nonnarrative news article. The addition of visual images in both narrative and non-narrative messages had a significant impact on participants’ sympathy toward the story protagonist and increased their intentions to seek more information about GMO farming. Messages featuring visuals elicited greater sympathetic feelings and more transportation than those with no visuals.

However, the use of visuals had a particularly strong effect on non-narratives, making them as effective as narratives.

The analyses showed that visual messages induced more sympathy, and this led to more negative attitudes toward GMO, whereas narrative messages followed a more complex persuasion process that took place through both transportation and sympathy.

Overall, our results demonstrated that narratives and visuals persuade through different psychological mechanisms. It appears that adding visuals to both narrative and nonnarrative news reports had a distinct impact on issue attitudes and behavioral intentions.

Fuyuan Shen is a senior research fellow at the Page Center. He is a professor and head of the Department of Advertising/Public Relations at the Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications. Along with Heidi Hatfield Edwards, Florida Institute of Technology, he led the Center’s 2019 call for research proposals on narratives. Michail Vafeiadis and Jiangxue (Ashley) Han are both alumni of the Bellisario College.