What Led to Vizualizing the COVID-19 Pandemic: The The Theoretical Background

7 May 2024

This paper is available on arxiv under CC 4.0 license.


(1) Mykola Makhortykh, Institute of Communication and Media Studies, University of Bern;

(2) Aleksandra Urman, Social Computing Group, University of Zurich;

(3) Roberto Ulloa, GESIS – Leibniz-Institute for the Social Sciences.

Author Note


Theoretical background



Conclusion and References

Theoretical background

According to Gitlin (1980, 7), frames are "persistent patterns of cognition, interpretation, and presentation of selection, emphasis and exclusion" used to organize discourse about specific issues. Frames are often utilized as a conceptual device for studying how important societal developments are presented and interpreted by mass media and how they shape public opinion (de Vreese, 2005).

There are different typologies of frames, varying from the broad distinction between generic and issue-specific frames to more narrow differentiation among specific types of generic frames (for an overview, see de Vreese 2005). In our chapter, we utilize the typology introduced by Semetko and Valkenburg (2000) to distinguish five types of generic news frames (For a full description, see the methodology section.).

The process of framing involves selecting some aspect of the issue to make it more salient in order to promote its specific interpretation and/or treatment (Entman, 1993, 52). An example of such varying salience can be, for instance, two different groups of (visual) frames used to represent the same armed conflict: the first group of frames focuses on images of human suffering, thus stressing the human toll of warfare and the need for protecting civilians, whereas the other group emphasizes the images of smiling soldiers and military vehicles to present the conflict as "the good war" (Makhortykh and Sydorova 2017).

The importance of framing explains its complicated relationship with the concept of information literacy: the effect of specific frames on individual perceptions of certain societal phenomena can be influenced by the presence/absence of specific information skills, as such skills can be essential both for the discovery of frames and/or their critical assessment.

A number of studies utilize the concept of framing to investigate how mass media represent health disasters, in particular the ones related to disease outbreaks (e.g., the recent H1N1 pandemic), thus stressing its importance for pandemic literacy. Pan and Meng (2016) use an issue-specific frame typology to study how the 2009 flu crisis in the US was framed and find varying degrees of prevalence for specific frames depending on the crisis stage (e.g., economic frames being more prevalent in the pre-crisis stage and medical issues being more visible during the crisis).

Using a hybrid issue-specific/generic approach, Gadekar, Pradeep and Peng (2014) find distortions in the framing of H1N1 in India, in particular the unequal representation of actors’ involvement, with a more supportive stance towards the government and more critical one towards the hospitals.

Finally, Kee, Faridah, and Normah (2010), in their study of H1N1 framing in Malaysia, also deploy the typology of generic frames by Semetko and Valkenburg (2000) to identify the prevalence of the responsibility frame ( contrasting with the “least visibility” economic frame) as well as substantial consistency in the use of frames by different legacy outlets.

Current scholarship on pandemics framing, however, suffers two important gaps. First, the majority of studies so far omit visual representations of disease outbreaks and instead focus on textual content (e.g., news articles’ text). Yet, visual content is an effective means of framing because of its more universal recognizability, compared with written texts, and strong potential for stirring emotional responses (Schwalbe and Dougherty 2015). Furthermore, the use of visual messages to communicate information is proven to have a substantial effect on individual behavior at the time of a pandemic (Updegraff et al. 2011), which is another reason for our interest in visual framing of COVID- 19.

Second, current research focuses on the ways pandemics are framed in legacy media, whereas its presentation via new platforms (e.g., search engines) remains understudied. Yet, digital platforms and their algorithms are increasingly recognized as influential actors in the process of news distribution that has far-reaching consequences for political and health-related information consumption (Entman and Usher 2019; Arendt 2020; Makhortykh, Urman and Wijermars 2022).

Earlier research (Urman, Makhortykh, Ulloa and Kulshrestha 2022; Hannak et al. 2013) also demonstrates significant discrepancies in the output of search engines that can influence the quality of information received by their users, which is of particular concern in a time of emergency. By examining how search engines visually frame COVID-19, we strive to achieve a better understanding of the role of search engines in the process of framing, in particular their influence on the representation of health disasters.

This paper is available on Arxiv under a CC 4.0 license.