Analyzing Images

by Kate Zoellner, University of Montana

I recently came across the article “Want to resist the post-truth age? Learn to analyze photos like an expert would”, written by two communication professors largely in response to the claims by President Trump and Press Secretary Spicer that journalists distorted photographs to understate attendance at Trump’s inauguration. The article made me think of the inclusion of visual and media literacy in both the ACRL Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education and the AASL Standards for the 21st Century Learner, and that this is a ripe time to focus on those literacies. The article authors offer recommendations for analyzing images: consider the source; pay attention to aesthetics; ask “what is the narrative of the photo?”; and cross-check information. Our Montana colleagues Megan Stark and Tammy Ravas, in their presentation “I Spy with My Little Eye: An Introduction to Visual Literacy”, indicate that the same evaluative criteria used for print information can be applied to the evaluation of visual images; individuals should consider: bias, authorship/sponsorship, credibility/accuracy, coverage/scope, purpose, timeliness, and reliability/verifiability. The ACRL Visual Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education indicate students should be able to evaluate the effectiveness and reliability of images as visual communications; the aesthetic and technical characteristics of images; textual information accompanying images; and to make judgments about the reliability and accuracy of image sources. And among other performance indicators, students should be able to situate an image in its cultural, social, and historical contexts.

While I recognize the timing is rich for visual and media literacy – and there are plenty of images in the popular and social media to analyze – I haven’t often discussed it in the instruction I provide, aside from with education students in the context of sharing resources for evaluating images in children’s picture books, specifically the portrayal of American Indians (e.g., Evaluating American Indian Materials and Resources for the Classroom). As a librarian would, I did some research and came across a long list of image types (and added some of my own) that I could start from for examples, including: Advertisements, Artwork, Bulletin Boards, Cartoons, Charts, Collages, Comic books, Diagrams, Dioramas, Drawings, DVDs, Graphic Novels, Graphs, Icons, Infographics, Maps, Memes, Multimodal Texts, Pamphlets, Photos, Pictograms, Political cartoons, Signs, Slide shows, Storyboards, Symbols, Tables, Timelines, Videos, Websites. And now that I have this list, I can focus in on the particular images used by the students I teach in the education and health sciences fields so that it is applicable to their work. For example, education association websites, proficiency level charts, medical drawings, counseling professional development videos, and patient pamphlets. My plan is to blend the evaluation of images into the discussion of evaluating textual information.

If you’re more interested in photos and fake news than images generally, check out the article How Photos Fuel the Spread of Fake News which has a few examples you could use in teaching.

Do you teach visual literacy? Do you blend it within information literacy or have separate instruction dedicated to image evaluation? What types of images have engaged your students or library users? Do you think there is an increase in ‘fake’ images with the rise of ‘fake’ news?

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One thought on “Analyzing Images

  1. Great resources, Kate! We don’t teach any specific visual literacy classes at Tech, but when I ask students for examples of evidence, “photos” is usually one of the first answers. I particularly like that fake news article about using a still image to convey a false narrative.

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