Why we should give a flip about cutlines


My 8-year-old son is a devoted reader of the sports section. His favorite part is the agate page, which is where all the real news is. Those box scores, poll listings and transactions tell some interesting stories.

But he also reads the headlines and cutlines, occasionally asking questions about what he sees. This photo and cutline, published earlier this week in The News & Observer, gave him pause. Our breakfast conversation went like this:

Son: What is this guy doing?

Dad: I’m not sure. What does it say he is doing?

Son: He’s celebrating.

Dad: Hmmm. That’s not really helpful, is it?

Son: No.

Apparently, this celebratory flip is something that NASCAR driver Carl Edwards is known for. You could even say it was a cliche and that running a photo of him doing it isn’t necessary or informative. But hey, it was new to one reader — and a young one at that.

That takes us to the cutline. “Celebrate” is a throwaway verb in sports cutlines. As documented by fellow blogger and editing professor Fred Vultee, the word is used far too often in these situations. Here’s what Vultee says bothers him about “celebrate” cutlines:

My big reason is a cousin of the gesture/point/react thing. Cutlines shouldn’t tell people stuff they can see; cutlines need to tell people what they can’t see. You can see that the photo subject is pumping his fist or leaping skyward or running up the court and shouting, but you can’t see that he just hit the game-tying home run, or scored his fourth touchdown, or extended his winning streak, or whatever. So I always prefer to let the image speak for itself and use the text to complement the other display type.

Agreed. Cutlines should avoid the obvious. They should connect the image to the story. At the same time, they should explain the less than obvious. That’s the case here. The way the photo is composed, it’s not readily apparent what Edwards is doing — jumping off the roof of his car? From the car door? From a trampoline? Or perhaps he was dropped head-first from a crane?

The cutline does not tell us. This video from YouTube does, however.



  1. The real question is: How much basic info should a newspaper provide? Sports fans generally (and NASCAR fans specifically) know that Carl Edwards does a back flip off the driver’s side door ledge after every single victory. In 2008, he racked up 16 wins — and 16 more back flips.

    I suspect the N&O copy editor was tired of writing some variation of the “Carl Edwards performs his trademark backflip after winning at …” I agree that “celebrates” isn’t any better.

    P.S. Did you know from the YouTube clip that it was from one of NASCAR’s second-tier races and not its top-level Cup series?

  2. John,

    Thanks for the thoughts. I agree it’s a tough line sometimes to explain the content of the photo while not repeating something that many readers may already know.

    I picked that YouTube clip because it was the first one I found where you can get a good view of Edwards doing his thing. That was my main concern.

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