Above left: new information

3 Feb

There’s been an interesting discussion going on at You Don’t Say. Mr McIntyre asks:

“I wonder how many of you, and I mean civilians, not journalists, would be bothered to see information in a photo caption that is not duplicated in the associated article.

Let me explain …

It is standard practice in the trade not to run a photo of someone not mentioned in the text, and I can understand that. You see a photo of an identified person with the story, you expect that person to be mentioned in the text.

But recently … some colleagues have challenged captions that contained information pertinent to the subject that was not included in the story. I suspect that it is an unwarranted extension of the prohibition on running a photo of a person not mentioned. If the information in the caption is relevant to the story and accurate, what harm comes from running it? It’s not as if we’re at a court of law raising facts not entered into evidence.”

And the resulting responses have, to a stuck-in-the-mud hack like me, been surprisingly positive. “I do notice when captions contain extra information, and far from finding it objectionable, I prefer it,” writes one reader, Joe Kissell. Another, Garrick Stolz, says: “I appreciate unique information in captions as much as I do in sidebars.” Wayne Countryman, who has plenty of experience of handling stories that need cutting, writes:  “If a story is being cut drastically, then cutting copy that could be used in the caption is an option.”

Other readers, however, have pertinent objections. “I suppose there could be an element of false advertising. People do tend to look at pictures before text, and if they read the caption expecting to find out more about what’s in the caption in the story itself and don’t find it, they might feel cheated,” writes Linda Felaco. And Tracy Chen agrees: “I’ve had that happen … infuriating … if what was in the caption was more interesting than the article … and it wasn’t expounded upon.”

As someone in the newspaper trade, I think of the caption as part of the story’s “furniture”: that is, the package of display type – headline, standfirst, pullquote, strapline etc – that gets written to complete the story after it has been cut to fit. Editors perceive captions the way Ms Felaco does: as something that gets noticed, like a headline, before the reader starts on the body copy. Indeed, the custom at the Tribune is that all the special design-led typographical rules that apply to large type – single quotes instead of double; no  italics or other emphasis – also apply  to captions, even though they are the same size as the main text.

It follows, then, that because a subeditor would never put anything in a headline or a pullquote that wasn’t supported in the story, we never do in captions either. But is that just a habit of mind? Perhaps we should think of them as Mr Stolz does: as short factboxes to be read afterwards, not before.

Perhaps the only reason not to is the one implied by Ms Chen’s comment. The fundamental question is: why isn’t the information in the story in the first place? Because it was edited out; in the editor’s view, it was marginal. If you then put it in the caption – perforce briefly – and, as Ms Chen says, readers find it more interesting than what was left in the body copy,  the issue of editorial judgment can come up. A particularly annoyed reader might be prompted to wonder: why did you cut that? Why did you leave the less interesting bits in, at greater length? Are you biased? Don’t you grasp the real agenda? How many other things have you cut out of stories that I should have been told about?

All news is shortened and curated, of course. But it’s a small act of bravery to show how it was done, and by implication why. Especially if, as the Economist claims, the headline and the caption are the most-read parts of any story: then the readers will be getting the most important fact and the least, and nothing in between.

4 Responses to “Above left: new information”

  1. Picky February 4, 2014 at 10:00 am #

    And if I can crave your indulgence while I veer off topic for a moment, the thing that narks me about captions is that habit on feature pages of using a picture — usually a cutout — of some person with no caption at all, so one has to go searching through three or four columns of text to find out who the hell it is. And then, like as not, fate being what it is, the text says (pictured above) when the picture is anything but.

    • edlatham February 4, 2014 at 10:57 am #

      Amen! I’ve worked under two distinct editorial regimes: one editor who, unless there was a clear and proximate caption explaining every pic, would hold up the proof in the middle of the newsroom and cry “I DON’T KNOW WHAT THIS IS!”, and designers who, when you diffidently suggest a caption might be helpful on a 400-word picture story, sigh “Isn’t it obvious?”. I greatly prefer the former

  2. Theophylact February 6, 2014 at 1:18 pm #

    Headline, picture, and caption that are totally unsupported by the story are essential features of Fox News and Drudge Report; neither would be nearly as misleading without them. And that’s the point of them; the article itself provides plausible deniability for the vivid lies that hit the reader first.

    • edlatham February 6, 2014 at 1:51 pm #

      Yes, indeed. I do tend to the same view – that captions get read before, rather than after, the text and that they are best seen as a kind of auxiliary standfirst/deck hed, albeit a small one.

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