A Study of Visual Communication: Cyclones, Cones, and Confusion

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Visuals are at the forefront of providing information in today's society. They are on the front page of newspapers, the evening news, the Internet, and textbooks. They are particularly important in explaining risk and scientific processes such as the intricacies of climate change or the risks of cancer treatments. These visuals do not simply appear in the newspaper or on television without thought but often have distinct objectives or purposes given to them by their designer. The original objective of the graphic may not be achieved, however, if viewers misunderstand or misinterpret the graphic. Misinterpretations of risk visuals, such as hurricane track graphics, may have especially harmful consequences. Therefore, it is critically important to understand how scientific intent translates through visuals to evoke public understanding of science and risk assessment, a process that I call visual validity. To do attain scientific validity, the scientist?s objective for the graphic must be known as well as the public's interpretation of the graphic. This thesis looks at the concept of visual validity from the scientist?s point of view using a graphic called the ?cone of uncertainty,? a highly visible hurricane track graphic. Using a grounded theory approach, I conducted 19 in-depth interviews with forecasters and meteorologists from a variety of government and private sector institutions including the National Weather Service, the National Hurricane Center, The Weather Channel, and Weatherbug. I found that the cone of uncertainty has four main message objectives: (1) to communicate uncertainty, (2) to emphasize risks and impacts, (3) to show confidence in the forecast, and lastly, (4) to encourage individuals to listen to their emergency managers. The results suggest that a complicated relationship exists between the design of a visual and its many message objectives. Additionally, two potential characteristics of achieving visual validity emerged out of the data. First, the role of transactional communication between the designer of a visual and its intended audience appears to play a role in accurate understanding and risk assessment. Second, supplementing a visual with an explanation also appears to play a role in attaining visual validity. These findings have implications for the visual literacy process, as well as the extent to which an individual understands complex science and risk visuals. Future research to seek out additional potential characteristics of the visual validity process will include the public?s interpretation of the cone of uncertainty.
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Science Communication; risk communication; visual communication; hurricane graphics; visual validity
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