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The Proof is in the Picture: The Influence of Imagery and Experience in Perceptions of Hurricane Messaging

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  • 1 Department of Communication and Journalism, University of Maine, Orono, Maine
  • | 2 Department of Communication, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York
  • | 3 Eastern Research Group, Arlington, Virginia
  • | 4 Department of Communication, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York
  • | 5 Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York
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Abstract

Although evidence suggests that photographs can enhance persuasive messaging by offering “proof,” less research considers their utility relative to other visual forms that ostensibly convey more information but more abstractly. Drawing on communication and information processing theory, this study examines the influence of visual features and personal experience variables in a domain with urgent need to better understand their role: hurricane messaging. In a between subjects experiment, residents of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut (N = 1052) were exposed to a hypothetical hurricane forecast accompanied by a photograph of storm surge inundating a house (indexical image), a map of projected storm surge (iconic image), or no image (control), depending on condition. Results revealed that participants in the indexical condition perceived the greatest risk overall and were more likely to mention evacuation as a behavioral intention than did those in the iconic and control conditions, controlling for individual differences (gender, state of residence, etc.). Moreover, risk perception was greatest among residents in the indexical condition reporting fewer personal impacts of hurricanes, suggesting a moderating effect of hurricane experience on risk judgment but not on behavioral intention. Consistent with a dual-process model perspective, when exposed to an image of an identifiable “victim,” participants with less direct experience may have employed an affect heuristic, resulting in heightened risk perceptions. Practically speaking, using evocative photographs as proof may be preferable to a map or text-only approach when warning public audiences of a given hazard, but ethical issues and empirical questions remain.

Supplemental information related to this paper is available at the Journals Online website: http://dx.doi.org/10.1175/WCAS-D-16-0048.s1.

© 2017 American Meteorological Society. For information regarding reuse of this content and general copyright information, consult the AMS Copyright Policy (www.ametsoc.org/PUBSReuseLicenses).

Corresponding author e-mail: Laura N. Rickard, laura.rickard@maine.edu

Abstract

Although evidence suggests that photographs can enhance persuasive messaging by offering “proof,” less research considers their utility relative to other visual forms that ostensibly convey more information but more abstractly. Drawing on communication and information processing theory, this study examines the influence of visual features and personal experience variables in a domain with urgent need to better understand their role: hurricane messaging. In a between subjects experiment, residents of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut (N = 1052) were exposed to a hypothetical hurricane forecast accompanied by a photograph of storm surge inundating a house (indexical image), a map of projected storm surge (iconic image), or no image (control), depending on condition. Results revealed that participants in the indexical condition perceived the greatest risk overall and were more likely to mention evacuation as a behavioral intention than did those in the iconic and control conditions, controlling for individual differences (gender, state of residence, etc.). Moreover, risk perception was greatest among residents in the indexical condition reporting fewer personal impacts of hurricanes, suggesting a moderating effect of hurricane experience on risk judgment but not on behavioral intention. Consistent with a dual-process model perspective, when exposed to an image of an identifiable “victim,” participants with less direct experience may have employed an affect heuristic, resulting in heightened risk perceptions. Practically speaking, using evocative photographs as proof may be preferable to a map or text-only approach when warning public audiences of a given hazard, but ethical issues and empirical questions remain.

Supplemental information related to this paper is available at the Journals Online website: http://dx.doi.org/10.1175/WCAS-D-16-0048.s1.

© 2017 American Meteorological Society. For information regarding reuse of this content and general copyright information, consult the AMS Copyright Policy (www.ametsoc.org/PUBSReuseLicenses).

Corresponding author e-mail: Laura N. Rickard, laura.rickard@maine.edu

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