Transformations in genre: An examination of visualizations of the Zika Virus

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Fanning, Shannon
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Charles Kostelnick
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This dissertation is a mixed-methods study that employs both quantitative and qualitative methods to examine the visuals used in the reporting of the Zika virus and to determine if the changes these images undergo as they are “accommodated” for different audiences constitute a genre shift. The qualitative analysis examines images from three tiers of publications: peer reviewed academic articles, government and specialized sources, and publications intended for the general public. Each image is coded by tier, type (e.g., table, graph, photograph), and rhetorical genre (forensic, deliberative, epideictic). A genre shift is observed between Tier Two and Tier Three with a smaller and less significant shift found between Tier One and Tier Two. These genre shifts indicate that academic peer-reviewed science articles use images primarily to support their arguments, functioning as additional “proof” for those arguments, and working to help readers make decisions. The images in the Tier Two articles were also found to be primarily forensic and deliberative, with an increase in the percentage of the images functioning to help the readers of government and specialized sources make decisions about issues related to the Zika virus. Images in Tier Three publications, however, were found to be primarily epideictic in genre – their rhetorical goal being to praise, blame, and call attention to particular aspects of the Zika virus.

The qualitative analysis draws on a second corpus of images comprised entirely of data visualizations in order to draw conclusions about what makes each visual type and genre best suited to particular contexts and audiences. Drawing on the rich theoretical framework of rhetorical genre studies, the analysis focuses on the ways in which images are products of their creators and the communities, as well as the modes of power associated with those creators. My findings indicate that while each image’s rhetorical genre is dependent on the selected audience and the needs of that audience, the image’s form is influenced by both the audience and the type of data that needs to be portrayed.

Overall, this study highlights the ways in which those crafting articles for different audiences rely on both different types of information and on different visual forms and genres in order to communicate that information. While this reliance on certain visual types and genres is indicative of the shift this study set out to prove, it is also a finding that I fear perpetuates stereotypes about such audiences and misses the opportunity to call upon several visual genres that are well suited to the presentation of complex information to different types of audiences. Science communicators may be missing a key opportunity to utilize the strengths of data visualizations by withholding these quantitative images from the audiences of science popularizations.

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Wed Aug 01 00:00:00 UTC 2018