The Editor's Desk

Thoughts on editing for print and digital media

Category: cutlines

Telling the story of poverty in words and images

A Business Insider story has been bouncing around in my Twitter and Facebook feeds for the past day or so. The article focuses on the increase of poverty in North Carolina.

The topic is certainly newsworthy and worth discussion on social media. This state and others have struggled economically since the Great Recession hit in 2007.

The BI story cites a Brookings Institution report and another from the Pew Charitable Trusts. It quotes Gene Nichol, director of the UNC’s Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity. More sources would add context and nuance to the piece, but the ones used are knowledgeable on the topic.

Where the article falls short is in its selection of photographs and captions. Scrolling down the page, the reader sees images of hardscrabble scenes in Charlotte, Raleigh, Winston-Salem and Greensboro.

The photo of downtown Raleigh caught my eye first. It looks outdated, so I asked on Twitter whether anyone could identify when it was taken. Matt Robinson of Metroscenes.com responded that the photo is from 2005. Here’s a more recent photo of the city’s skyline.

The image from Charlotte is also misleading: The “old movie theater” is a music club called The Visulite. The place may not be pretty, but it’s open for business.

Each image appears to have been pulled from Flickr accounts. Not one has a person in it. The bare-bones captions don’t connect the images to the story text.

My colleague Jock Lauterer, who teaches photojournalism and other courses at UNC-Chapel Hill, suggests this approach to the visual side of this story: Find several people from various backgrounds who are struggling with poverty and unemployment. Take portrait-style shots that reflect their daily lives.

“For a documentary photo to be compelling, it must include the human element,” Lauterer said.

Andria Krewson, an editor at mediagazer.com and a Charlotte freelancer and consultant, reacted this way on Twitter:

Maybe it’s time to start teaching photo editing again. 1. Pick up phone 2. Call a local paper. 3. Offer to pay or swap, because Google search and Flickr search for Creative Commons free stuff ain’t cutting it.

I agree with Andria and Jock. Some news stories can be illustrated by drawing from repositories of free images. This isn’t one of them. Poverty is about people, not buildings. We need to see the faces of the problem to fully understand it.

The caption and the cliché

Photo captions count, but we often treat them as an afterthought when we write them. That can lead to errors, confusion or cliché.

It’s the last pitfall that caught my attention recently when I ran across numerous references in captions to people being “all smiles.” It’s a tired phrase that usually states the obvious. Here are some other phrases to avoid in captions:

  • Celebrates.
  • Looks on.
  • Pictured/seen here.
  • Gestures.
  • Shares a laugh/shares a moment.

If you are writing a caption (or a cutline, if you are old school) and catch yourself using one of these phrases, consider a rewrite. Remember that a caption needs to do two things — describe the image and connect it to the story. Using tired phrases impedes that mission.

My greatest hits

A Christmas tradition in the music business is the “greatest hits” album released in time for holiday shopping. These compilations can be quick sellers for recording companies and can provide a stopgap for bands on hiatus.

The first such compilation I received for Christmas was in 1981, when a relative gave me the curiously titled “A Collection of Great Dance Songs” by Pink Floyd. A more apt name for such a collection, if not the perfect one, is “Money For Nothing” by Dire Straits.

In that holiday spirit, I offer you the “greatest hits” of this blog. I will take the rest of the month off to grade exams, submit grades for the semester, travel a little and spend Christmas with family. I’ll likely be on Twitter now and again.

So here they are, as decided by you, the readers: the most popular posts on this blog since I moved it to WordPress in October 2008. These are the full versions — no edits, remixes or live performances. The figure after each headline is the number of hits that post has received as of today.

Enjoy, and best wishes to you this holiday season. Thanks for reading, and see you in the new year!

What’s your style for blog titles? (2,488)

Memorable headlines: The Filth and the Fury! (1,965)

Redesign reactions (1,276)

Q&A with Grammar Hulk (1,243)

Memorable headlines: GOTCHA (1,013)

Memorable headlines: BASTARDS! (915)

Cutlines or captions? (705)

Memorable headlines: Dewey defeats Truman (654)

Q&A with Ken Lowery of Fake AP Stylebook (627)

Q&A with Brian Russell of Carrboro Creative Coworking (612)

To China and back

china-newsroom

My visit to China is done, and although I’ve adapted once again to Eastern Daylight Time, I’m still thinking about my experience half a world away.

My colleague Laura Ruel and I spent about a week working with journalists of the China.org news site. The English-language site has a staff of about 30 people, including a few Americans.

I was impressed with the dedication and skills of the China.org staff. It’s a different sort of journalism — run by and controlled by the government, created in an environment where Facebook, Twitter and most blogs are blocked. Yet, the staff there is doing much of what their Western counterparts do: trying to figure out the best to get the news to readers, in both form and content, while on constant deadline pressure.

I was asked to speak to the staff on several topics:

  • Story editing
  • Headline writing
  • Caption writing
  • Alternative story forms

I covered each of those topics in workshop sessions at the China.org offices. Each went well, and with each session, the staff grew more comfortable asking questions and offering comments.

On my final day in Beijing, I worked with staff members one on one in the newsroom. This was the most rewarding part of the week because I got to help people with the stories, captions and other content that they were working on at that moment. I also got a surprising compliment from one editor: “Thank you for your help. And I would like to say that you are very handsome.”

Thanks to everyone at the site for their hospitality, and special thanks to Celine Chen for organizing the trip, showing us the city and and allowing us to bring a little bit of U.S. journalism to China.

Bound for Beijing

This blog will be quiet for much of October because I am going to Beijing for part of the month. I will be training journalists at an English language news site on topics such as headlines, captions and alternative story forms.

This trip is part of UNC’s ongoing relationship with this site. Here’s how it works:

  • In the spring, two Chinese journalists come to Chapel Hill for a semester and sit in on courses of their choice. They often select News Editing as one of those courses.
  • In the summer, two UNC undergraduates work in Beijing as summer interns at the site.
  • On occasion, faculty members travel to China for a week or two to lead workshop sessions. Previous visits led to the site’s recent redesign.

I’m excited about this opportunity and look forward to sharing my experiences when I am Stateside again. I hope to be able to offer updates on Twitter as things go along.

Thanks for reading, and see you later in the month.

Cutlines or captions?

This blog has occasionally discussed the writing of cutlines, with examples both good and not so good. And that’s the word I have used most of the time: cutlines. I even have a category and tag for it.

Lately, I’ve been wondering whether “cutline” is destined for a list of antiquated terms (like these) heard in print-centric newsrooms. Is “cutline” showing its age?

Early on in my editing courses, I describe the many duties and responsibilities associated with editing the news. When I get to cutlines, I am always careful to define that term for students, many of whom have never heard it until that moment. When they understand that cutlines are those bits of text that accompany photos, the students get it: “Oh yeah, captions.”

The information that accompanies a photograph is still important. Good editors use that information to connect the image to the story. They avoid the cliche, the pun and the obvious. Good editors also use that information in a sequence to create an effective slideshow online.

So yes, the form still matters. But does the word? Is it time to search for “cutline” and replace it with “caption”?

Copy editors are storytellers too

Pam Robinson at Words at Work has taken note of yet another article about the future of newspapers. This piece, posted on The Moderate Voice, mentions some ill-considered advice from an editor at a New Jersey newspaper:

Restructure the newsroom. Half of the journalists are involved in the “processing” of news — copy editing, writing captions, laying out pages — as opposed to the generation of journalism. Concentrate on journalism that matters. And focus on good writing. Tales well told.

Robinson smacks down this argument, pointing out the valuable rewriting and fact checking that copy editors do. (It’s a point also made in a widely discussed column by the Washington Post’s ombudsman.) Robinson also mentions the necessity of production — copy editors and page designers are the ones who put the pieces together for print media. If they don’t do that, who will?

I’d like to build on Robinson’s response and suggest that copy editors are journalists, or “storytellers.” Here’s how:

  • Copy editors write captions. Most photographs need explanation and detail that connect them to the text they go with. In standalone photos in print and in slideshows online, the captions and images must work together to tell a story. Either way, copy editors make that connection.
  • Copy editors are experts on story structures. That makes us essential in deciding what form best matches the stories we are trying to tell.
  • Copy editors write headlines, which both reflect the story text they accompany and tell stories on their own. Indeed, many headlines are just as memorable as the stories themselves, if not more so.

These are just three ways that copy editors are storytellers. We are journalists, just like the reporters, photographers and page designers in any newsroom. We believe in the importance of “tales well told” as much as our colleagues do.

In short, we generate plenty of journalism. Is that so hard to see?

Q&A: Copy editing and business journalism

Eileen Cukier is the associate editor at the South Florida Business Journal, based in Fort Lauderdale. She has been at the publication for eight years and the full-time copy editor for six years. This Q&A, conducted by e-mail, takes a look at Cukier’s job and the task of editing business news.

Q. Describe your job. What’s it like to be an editor specializing in business journalism?

A. I’m responsible for copy-editing every story for our weekly print edition and every bit of breaking news for our Web site. For print, I’m usually the second read. For the Web, I may be the only read. I also write headlines and cutlines for the print edition, write chatter for and double-check charts and maps, cut stories to fit their assigned layouts and do some page layout from scratch. (When the design editor is out, I do all of the page layout.)

SFBJ is one of American City Business Journals’ 40 local business newspapers nationwide. As such, we feature people who are leaders in the local business community. We report on local, state and national issues that impact our readers’ businesses and help them grow their companies.

In other words: We’re a niche publication and don’t cover many of the things a daily paper does. We don’t write for the general consumer, so our coverage rarely overlaps that of the three dailies in our market.

Editing for a business publication is exciting for me because we tend to cover topics that touch large groups of people and have far-reaching consequences.

Q. How is editing business stories different from editing general news? What about similarities?

A. I need to be on top of everything a businessperson would be interested in reading about, from banking and real estate to legal issues and technology — topics that I would not usually have any interest in. I need to have a good understanding of these topics so I can ask informed questions of the reporters. I need to make sure the stories are written in such a way that doesn’t talk down to our readers, but isn’t full of jargon. In other words: I want that banker to feel we’ve don’t a good job covering his sector, but I also want a lawyer to be able to get something out of the story.

I also need to have the general knowledge about my market that any good editor has: names of places, names of people in high places and any major changes to said people and places. Of course, attention to detail, the ability to know when spell-check is wrong and a working knowledge of the AP Stylebook are musts.

Q. People are talking about the performance of the media in reporting on the economic crisis. What is your opinion of how business journalism has covered this news?

A. I think business journalism has done a good job of covering the crisis. At the SFBJ, we have mostly covered it as it relates to local business (with layoffs and such), banking (subprime mortgage crisis) and real estate (lots of foreclosures).

Q. What advice do you have for someone looking to move into business journalism?

A. Know your audience. Keep up with the major trends. Be ready to read a lot of depressing news. (Hopefully, that’s only temporary.)

Guest post: Can you find victory in a cutline?

Students in my Advanced Editing course are contributors to The Editor’s Desk this semester. They are free to write about whatever they wish, provided that the topic fits the theme for this blog: “thoughts on editing for print and online media.”

This is the fourth of these guest posts. Amanda Johnson, a UNC-Chapel Hill senior majoring in journalism and French, possesses an unusual love for proper grammar, romance languages and competitive sports. As an Atlanta native, she still dreams about Chipper Jones and the ’95 Atlanta Braves.

After the Tar Heels’ most recent victory over the Blue Devils in Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium, I eagerly awaited the next morning’s news stories, photos and videos. I wanted to relive every moment of the basketball game (especially Bobby Frasor’s three 3-pointers). After all, shouldn’t one of the greatest sports rivalries of all time result in the greatest sports journalism of all time?

There were some moments of copy editing greatness, such as the headline in The Charlotte Observer that read, “Once again, Tar Heels are kings of Cameron.” However, in my opinion, copy editors often fell short of greatness when it came to writing cutlines.

First, I found the inaccurate cutline. In her ESPN.com column, Dana O’Neil wrote about UNC-Chapel Hill player Tyler Hansbrough and his dominance at Duke’s basketball court. An accompanying picture carried the caption: “Tyler Hansbrough finished his career 4-0 at Cameron Indoor Stadium.” While this statement is completely accurate, its relationship to the picture bothered me. In the image, Hansbrough appears to be jumping over a Duke player to score a basket. However, those of us who have every play of the game engrained in our memories remember that Hansbrough did not score in the picture. Instead, he was called for a charge, which means that he actually hurt his team’s chances of winning the game in that moment. Ouch.

Next, I found the boring cutline. The Daily Tar Heel chronicled the mid-game and post-game revelry in Chapel Hill with a slideshow. Although the pictures expressed a sense of excitement, the cutlines did not. For example, one cutline said, “A crowd of students watches the basketball game in the Union lobby Wednesday night.” I can tell that from the photo. Cutlines are supposed to provide us with more information. How many students were there? How early did those in front arrive at the Union to claim their seats? How loud did the crowd get? Tell me more!

Finally, I found the absent cutline. A slideshow on the Sports Illustrated Web site documented the game with some fantastic pictures of both UNC-CH and Duke players handling the basketball like only the best players can. The pictures were clear and sharp, but they lacked cutlines. And to me, this was the least offensive of the cutline errors. Because the slideshow was clearly connected to the recap of the basketball game, cutlines seemed unnecessary and, perhaps, would have been redundant. The pictures were so expressive that they probably deserved to be left alone. However, I would welcome the challenge of supplementing the photos with a few words of my own.

So now, I conclude my tale of cutline woes by asking my fellow copy editors to be great. Be great like Tyler Hansbrough at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Make cutlines great or leave them out.

Interesting reading

  • Jeff Bailey of BusinessJournalism.org on the importance of headlines and cutlines in the age of smaller copy desks.
  • Wendy Parker of Ink-Drained Kvetch on the need for copy editors and reporters to have a Plan B in their careers, as discussed at the regional conference of the American Copy Editors Society.
  • John Ryan of the Redding Record Searchlight, on the difference between copy editors and proofreaders, and why we need more of the former.
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