How newsrooms keep stories visually fresh

After two years, the virus’s influence on news, politics, and our lives has changed, though hardly waned. But the aesthetics of the pandemic have stayed mostly stagnant: masks, vaccines, syringes, and illustrations of little balls with spikes.

The visual monotony of the crisis has put art departments at news organizations in a pinch. How do you keep covering one of the most important stories of our time when the story keeps revolving around the same virus?

First, art departments had to figure out the basics of covering the pandemic. As SARS-CoV-2 started spreading back in early 2020, artists at news publications had to get a bit of a crash-course in biology to do their jobs. “For some of those stories, especially early on, we’re really getting into trying to figure out ‘what is RNA and how is the cell composed,’” said Ben King, Art Director at BuzzFeed News.

“Because we’re an art desk, we don’t have formal training in science visualizations,” says King. “We’re very general in our approach to how we create illustrations, how we create art. And there’s definitely a learning curve.” Working closely with a science writer or editor can help–after all, the words and art that you see on a website are part of the same project. “Our job is just to take the words and the science and try and make it into something that’s a little bit more visual.”

Another challenge art departments faced: in the earliest stages of the pandemic, the practical realities of the world shutting down could affect a news site’s visuals. “I started to have to rely a little bit more heavily on illustration because there were just a lot of scenarios I wasn’t comfortable sending photographers into,” Alissa Ambrose, the director of photography and multimedia at STAT News, told me.”We just started doing a lot more illustration and a lot more animation in our videos when we just didn’t want to be sending people into hospitals.”

Stories focused on ordinary people, be a challenge to illustrate, too, but for a different reason. Slate’s own Coronavirus Diaries series featured stories on the small, painful struggles of the pandemic, like someone who lip-reads struggling with masks, and a daughter’s inability to hold a funeral for her father. “Those were hard to read,” says Holly Allen, a designer at Slate. “I feel like the personal stories just really hit you in the heart more than just broad generic stories. “Instead of it just being this thing that was happening, it was happening to this particular person with particular feelings, and reading their stories was much more emotional than just a statistic.”

Art departments had to be crafty to capture complicated science and feelings in a way that stayed fresh for readers. “Not only does [the virus] restrict the way we interact, but also our depictions of this new world are constrained by a limited visual vocabulary,” said Nicholas Konrad, Associate Web Art Director and an illustrator at the New Yorker, over email. “As an artist you are forced to make constant comparisons—a syringe becomes a car at the start of a race, the virus interchangeable for a meteor set for earth. We usually rely on a larger repertoire of symbols—now with only a few, you delight in finding a new use for them.”

“I downloaded one Getty image of coronavirus,” King says. “I think I’ve used that for like, roughly 90 percent of the illustrations we’ve done. We’re using the same one over and over and over again.” There was an upside to this. ”It’s a very adaptable shape.It is fundamentally a circle, which is a great place to start, graphically, for creating illustrations or just as a piece of art. But it also provides a lot of wiggle room to take a circle with little dots on top of it, and that is very easily recognizable as a Coronavirus. You can put color to the black and draw like a semicircle, and suddenly it’s a smile. Or you can turn into the sun.”

Illustrations can sometimes serve as an antidote to the sheer heaviness of the pandemic, suggests Adam Maida, one of the art directors at The Atlantic. Maida said that he likes to “find new ways of having fun with it and making myself laugh.” This comes through in an illustration showing a cowboy riding a coronavirus particle that he did for a piece about controlling the pandemic, or one depicting dueling viruses for one about Omicron outpaced Delta. He asks, rhetorically, if an illustration can “elevate the peace in a visual way and, can it invoke humor in such a serious subject, when there’s just been this prolonged period of suffering and misery?”

For a piece how experts were throwing “spaghetti at the wall” to come up with ideas to combat vaccine hesitancy, Ambrose took a lot of interest in the spaghetti metaphor, and decided to focus on that for the visuals. Using cooked pasta, she wrote out “vaccine” on a piece of bright green furniture, dotting the “i” with a vaccine vial she kept as a keepsake. A photo of the set-up ran as the lead image atop the story, which, Ambrose admits, was about an important subject.

“That was one of these things where I was like, ‘I don’t want to make fun of this because this is serious.’ But I also want something that’s going to make people click on the story and be like, ‘What the hell? Like what is this?’”

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