HealthLawProf Blog

Editor: Katharine Van Tassel
Case Western Reserve University School of Law

Thursday, October 28, 2021

Cross-Cultural Communication in a Crisis: The Universality of Visual Narrative in the COVID-19 Pandemic

Michael D. Murray (University of Kentucky), Cross-Cultural Communication in a Crisis: The Universality of Visual Narrative in the COVID-19 Pandemic, 32 Alb. L. J. Sci. & Tech. (forthcoming 2022):

When communication across language and cultural barriers is crucial, speakers across the globe get visual. In the 2020-21 COVID-19 crisis, government, inter-governmental, and private entities all looked to the universality of visual narrative to communicate urgent public health and safety messages. Speakers across the globe employed the symbolic modes of pictograms and ideograms and the longer form sequential narrative of cartoons and comics to warn and educate vast and diverse populations about the risks, dangers, and safety procedures concerning the novel coronavirus at the heart of the COVID-19 crisis.

The COVID-19 crisis of 2020-21 has provided a natural experiment in communication of critical information regarding government-backed and government-mandated restrictions and recommendations to broad and diverse audiences through highly visual and pictorial media. Lawyers, judges, and law students can draw immediate lessons from the correlation of visual content and the nearly universal use of multimodal content employing both words and highly pictorial images.

The goal of this Article is to apply the lens of visual legal rhetoric and narrativity, visual literacy analysis, and visual cultural studies to evaluate and critique representative examples of urgent public health and safety messages concerning the COVID-19 crisis. These communications used visual images as a means to overcome language and cultural barriers. Lessons can be drawn from these critical and urgent communications that can be applied to legal communications whose messages about the law and legal rights and obligations may not be as urgent in a time sense, but are no less urgent in terms of the need to communicate the message to the broadest possible audiences. Lawyers, judges, legislators, and regulators can read the examples in this study and be encouraged to make visuals a more integral part of legal works in transactional, litigation, legislative, regulatory, and legal informational contexts. Visuals can overcome barriers in communication that words alone cannot, and legal works can be made more universal in their communication, interpretation, performance, and enforcement if they are made more visual in content.

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