Effects of writing style and photographs on moral judgment in public relations

January 18, 2017

Rebecca McEntee, Renita Coleman, and Carolyn Yaschur

By Rebecca McEntee, South Dakota State University; Renita Coleman, University of Texas; and Carolyn Yaschur, Augustana College.

Professionals charged with communicating for non-profit and social movement organizations have a special obligation to promote the greater good. They have been called “moral visionaries,” tasked with serving as moral educators.

In order to help these communicators achieve this goal, our study, which was funded by the Page Center, looked at whether writing style and photographs could improve how audiences think about right and wrong. It also studied other outcomes important to public relations practitioners, including empathy for the cause, perceptions of the issue’s moral importance and support for the organization.

This research, published in a 2016 issue of Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, provides advice about practices that promote better moral judgment in publics, and also contributes to moral development theory with a more nuanced picture of the role of photographs and text in public relations.

The study asked whether photographs, which have been shown to elevate moral judgment in journalists and news audiences, could do the same for audiences of public relations communications. It also investigated whether vivid, descriptive writing, the kind that paints a mental picture in the mind’s eye, could do the same.

Photographs can sometimes result in a backlash of negative reactions, such as occurred with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals’ “Holocaust on Your Plate” campaign. If vivid writing achieves the same goal as pictures, then non-profit communicators who understand when to use words versus images can design campaigns that are more effective.

While no research before this had examined a cause-and-effect relationship between vivid writing and moral judgment, a theoretical basis for it is found in the elaboration likelihood model and dual coding theory, which have been adapted and expanded specifically to explain moral judgment.

This study used an experiment to discover if photographs, vivid writing or some combination of the two had the ability to improve ethical reasoning. We asked 158 adults to read three social issues stories for inclusion in a non-profit’s newsletter.

The stories were about elder abuse, homelessness and drugs. Participants read all three stories in one of four versions – vividly written without a photograph, vividly written with a photograph; non-vividly written without a photograph, or non-vividly written with a photograph. The photographs were award-winning pictures that had been shown to improve moral judgment in previous studies. From a list the participants chose the most important ethical concerns they had when making their decisions. These concerns represented progressively higher levels of moral judgment as defined by moral development theory, used to determine if photographs or writing style elevated ethical reasoning.

We found that non-vivid writing alone significantly improved moral judgment; neither vivid writing nor photographs, alone or in combination, elevated ethical thinking. Conventional writing did a better job of encouraging participants to think better ethically about social issues. However, vivid writing did inspire more empathy for the cause, which also was a significant predictor of support for the organization. Adding photographs led to participants’ perceiving the issue as more important morally.

Another big takeaway was how these findings in the public relations domain contradicted those in other settings such as news and politics. This emphasizes the need for research specifically in public relations rather than extrapolating the results from other forms of communication.