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Does Visual Storytelling Play By Different Rules?

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Did you see Businessweek’s recent cover illustration on the housing bubble rebound? Did it strike you as offensive, racist, misleading and factually incorrect as it did me?

Businessweek is rightfully being pilloried over the illustration, which feels more like a 19th-century minstrel cartoon than it does a cover for a leading and mainstream 21st-century business magazine.

But the more I looked at the situation and thought about the artwork, the more I realized that in the midst of this move towards more visual storytelling in media, business and culture at large, there seem to be few rules and standards in place for telling visual stories appropriately and accurately.

Infographics, video, stock photography, presentations and charts — you can’t visit a web page or turn a magazine page without being fed visual content that has replaced the written word. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but this shift brings with it more story formats that lack traditional checks and safeguards. And that’s why the Businessweek cover is so troubling.

via Chron

We can assume that Businessweek would not have published its fairly well-written cover story (“The Great American Housing Rebound”) without proper research, proofing and fact-checking. But the magazine clearly did not hold its cover art to the same journalistic standard as it did the article.

The cover story on the Phoenix housing boom profiled builders, house flippers, short sellers, real estate agents and underwater home-owners. It was not controversial. But that was the textual story. The visual story on the cover told an entirely different and fallacious tale of the housing bubble that blames the market meltdown on greedy, low-income, ethnic home buyers who took advantage of the banks through fraudulent loan applications. This is a storyline popular in certain circles that absolves the banking and loan industries and portrays them as victims with no responsibility for their reckless behavior.

The story told on the cover is one that could never have been written inside the pages of Businessweek, because the facts are simply not there. A writer even attempting this storyline would have been laughed out of his editor’s office. And yet the illustrator was given every approval.

So is the media unfamiliar with visual stories? Of course not.

Most news organizations respect and treat photojournalism like they do written journalism. Reuters’ standards guide states that their “images and stories must reflect reality.” When it comes to photography, “Materially altering a picture in Photoshop or any other image editing software will lead to dismissal.” In 2006, Reuters fired a photo editor and severed ties with a freelance journalist after it was revealed the latter digitally added smoke to a photo of the Beirut skyline following an Israeli air strike. Zero tolerance.

The New York Times is lauded for its graphics, which often provide analysis and insight that words never could. Part of the paper’s success in this arena is that the Times considers and treats their graphics department as journalists. As their graphics director explained in a Q&A, the paper sends their graphic artists to crime scenes so their computer-created diagrams will be accurate. Remember Saddam Hussein’s spider hole? The paper had a designer on the ground alongside the photographers and writers to ensure quality visual reporting. The New York Times continues to set the standards in this age of visual storytelling.

But let’s not let ourselves think that this issue is limited to journalism. Shouldn’t a company treat a stock photo with the same attention it does the accompanying blog post? Shouldn’t an organization respect a promotional web video the way it does a taped and edited interview with a company leader? Shouldn’t a communications firm fact check an infographic the way it would a research study?

Visual stories are destined for multiple interpretations — indeed, that is part of their power. But I think it’s incumbent upon today’s content creators today to understand that visual storytelling is still storytelling. Many old rules should still apply if credibility and trust are a desired outcome.

​Nolan Haims is vice president and director, New York Presentation.

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