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Our methods


The overarching aim of this research is  to develop new understanding of the role that generic visuals play in assembling publics, focusing on two distinct visual forms, stock photos and simple data visualizations.

We will realize this aim by addressing these research questions:

  1. How do practitioners involved in the production of generic visuals do their work and think about the visuals and the audiences who engage with them?
  2. What are the semiotic characteristics, designed forms and specific uses of generic visuals?
  3. How do the formal properties of generic visuals contribute to assembling publics?
  4. How do audiences make sense of and engage with generic visuals?

These questions will be addressed by combining methods from three scholarly traditions: production studies (RQ1, focusing on production); semiotics (RQ2, focusing on visual texts); and audience studies (RQ3, focusing on audience engagements) in an empirically grounded social semiotic approach. We will carry out our research in collaboration with three diverse partner organizations that produce and circulate generic images, concentrating on their online output.

The first publishes a range of regional tabloids and a national tabloid newspaper; the second is a broadsheet newspaper; the third is a regional news organization. Following secondary analysis of datasets from our previous research with producers of data journalism, stock photos and data visualizations, we will carry out: fieldwork in each partner organization (RQ1); visual analysis of generic visuals produced and used by each partner (RQ2); and interviews with partner organization audiences (RQ3).


Professional practitioners from publishers of generic visuals are partners in the research: Reach (formerly Trinity Mirror), The Financial Times (FT), and BBC Yorkshire. These partners have been chosen because they share common goals with researchers: to understand the relationship between generic images and publics and to see this understanding reflected in practice. The involvement of these partners ensures: access to their expertise throughout the research process; that the research will address organizational concerns; and that research findings will feed directly into these organizations, so that their future practices are informed by them. In addition, the anti-disinformation fact-checking charity Full Fact is a collaborator in our research. Full Fact is concerned to counter the spread of disinformation, but currently has limited understanding of the role of visuals in disinformation processes, hence their interest in our research. The involvement of Full Fact in the research ensures that our findings will feed into its anti-disinformation strategies.

We will work together with partners and collaborators in a two-way exchange on all aspects of the research: finalizing research design, implementation, analysis and dissemination, and translating findings into recommendations for practitioners.

Exhibition and outreach

We will produce an exhibition of a selection of the generic visuals that have been the focus of our research, with the aim of informing audiences about the roles that generic visuals play. The exhibition will include stock photographs and data visualizations organized to highlight their similarities, how they have been produced and consumed, and their roles in social processes. We aim to exhibit in the final six months of the project, in three geographical locations in which researchers, partners and collaborators are based: London, Leeds and Sheffield (but this may change due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic).

The project website will host an online version of the exhibition. The exhibition will also be publicized on social media.

We will seek to present our research at relevant public engagement events and through this to promote our exhibition, such as the Being Human Festival, Pint of Science, Future Everything in Manchester, Festival of the Mind in Sheffield, Be Curious Festival, and Digital Festival in Leeds.