Storytelling and Visual Literacy in the Courtroom

Last year I wrote a short review of Richard K. Sherwin’s 2011 book, “Visualizing Law in the Age of the Digital Baroque: Arabesques and Entanglements.” My review ended with the following conclusion:

Despite the fact that we are awash in images at almost every turn Sherwin suggests that we don’t often think about visual literacy which is problematic because, as he points out, “humans are notoriously blind to their own prejudices.” (p. 40) This is an important book that succeeds in raising our awareness for a more robust application of visual literacy within the context of the courtroom and the administration of justice.”

It’s a great book that I highly recommend for anyone interested in “exploring our place in this brave neo-baroque world.”

In September of this year I had the opportunity to hear Sherwin speak about his research in “visual persuasion” at a Law.Art.Culture Colloquium held at the Osgoode Hall Law School. He talked about courtroom practice today and the tendency for trials to end up as “multimedia events.” These events, where truth becomes a judgement based on the quality of a particular performance (to paraphrase Sherwin), can now include live action simulations, collections of screen images, and animated reenactments with three-dimensional graphic representations. He therefore advocates “visual literacy” for trial lawyers stressing the need for an increased awareness of the analytical and emotional impact that this “visual storytelling” can have on a participant’s “cognitive processes.”

Throughout his presentation Sherwin provided a number of excellent examples. There were two that struck me as particularly illustrative of the influence these visual representations can have on a participant’s perception of an event. The first was a digital re-enactment of the shooting of Trayvon Martin that used a recording of the original 911 call along with a computer generated virtual representation of what may have occurred. At one point the video placed Martin in an attack position on top of the neighbourhood watch coordinator George Zimmerman. Since there were no other witnesses this reenactment serves to reinforce the defense’s version of the events.

The second example was a reenactment of the Hudson River plane landing that happened on January 15, 2009. As you may recall this was dubbed the “Miracle on the Hudson,” a spectacular recovery by Captain Chesley Sullenberger III and First Officer Jeff Skiles who managed to successfully land U.S. Airways flight 1549 in the river after losing both engines shortly after take-off from LaGuardia airport. The two minute animated re-enactment is available on YouTube and “imagines and recreates” that incident.

It too is a nice little video that gathers information from a couple of different sources combining the audio exchange between the pilots and air traffic control aligned with an imagined 3D graphic representation. An interesting touch that Sherwin noted occurs at the end of this animation when it slowly dissolves into a photograph taken during the original event. Sherwin asks, “Does that legitimize the visualization that preceded it?” Certainly for me, after seeing that animation, it is very difficult to think about how it happened in any other way. The animation quickly replaces any cognitive representation I may have had about how the event happened before I has seen it.

Sherwin ended the talk by posing these questions:

  • What is the basis of credibility in the courtroom?
  • Are we easily bedazzled by sensory delight?
  • Is corporeal presence more significant?

A comment from the audience referred to the “imaginative images” that have always been conjured by verbal descriptions in the courtroom. Each juror will naturally derive their own internal picture of the events based on the description they hear. Do these visualizations then supplant the juror’s own imaginings? Sherwin responded that issues of rhetoric have always been present and we must learn to interpret these “narrations of reality.” However, he stressed that we need to be cognitive of the effect that new technology can have and the need to be aware that the mind works differently when interpreting images.

The New York Law School, under Sherwin‘s guidance, has established the Visual Persuasion Project where you’ll find more information about this topic. I’ll leave you with this quote to consider taken from the Project‘s section on Visual Litigation:

The most effective litigators are powerful storytellers. Good attorneys manage to educate and entertain their audience. Many rely on classic storytelling techniques and genres. … Today, our most popular narratives are visual. Effective litigators must emulate visual storytelling techniques and visual narrative genres. Symbols and graphics inside the courtroom must operate within the acceptable bandwith of popular culture. Visual persuasion must be attuned to ordinary expectations, the common sense knowledge that jurors and others carry around with them wherever they go. If a fact fits within a familiar scenario, if a character matches a particular type, if a story goes according to expectation, the outcome will be persuasive and memorable.”

It’s a fascinating area of research and another example of how technology is influencing the practice of law.

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