A caption can tell us what we can’t see


Captions are an underrated device in journalism. Used well, they provide a helpful layer of information, a connector between the headline and the story text. Too many captions belabor the obvious, contain errors or omit information.

A successful caption (or cutline, if you prefer) connects the photograph to the theme and content of the story it goes with. It describes the image but also tells us what we can’t see.

This caption on the front page of The Wall Street Journal does that. Here’s what it says:

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, left, and Ambassador Sergei Kislyak, right, share a laugh during a White House meeting with President Trump. The photo was taken by Russia’s state-owned news agency TASS; Wednesday’s meeting was closed to U.S. media.

The caption tells us who is who, where they are and when they met. And it mentions the unusual circumstances surrounding the photograph. That explains the newsworthiness of the image.

One edit: Find a better phrase than “share a laugh.” It’s a tired one to avoid in captions, along with “all smiles” and “looks on.”


Captions by computer? OK, but we still need human editors

Earlier this week, my colleague Ryan Thornburg retweeted this news from Google Research:

The post from Google describes the process of object detection, classification and labeling. The researchers include examples of effective computer-generated captions and others that fall short.

As an editor who has written many captions (and called them cutlines back in the day), I read the post with great interest. Could this lead to computers replacing editors?

Probably not. Even the best of these computer-generated captions states the obvious.

They don’t provide background and context. They don’t connect the image to a larger story. They don’t tell us what we cannot see. Effective captions, written by people, do all of those things in addition to describing the photograph.

Still, I appreciate the value of robo-captions on another level, if not for journalism. The Google scientists put it this way:

This kind of system could eventually help visually impaired people understand pictures, provide alternate text for images in parts of the world where mobile connections are slow, and make it easier for everyone to search on Google for images.

I’ll be curious to see how computer-generated captions evolve. For now, though, I view them as I view robo-articles: sometimes functional, but in need of human editors.

Q&A with Katie Jansen, Dow Jones News Fund editing intern

Katie Jansen is a recent graduate of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at UNC-Chapel Hill. This summer, she had a Dow Jones News Fund editing internship at the Richmond Times-Dispatch in Virginia. In this interview, conducted by email, Jansen talks about what she learned over the summer and what’s next for her.

Q. Describe your internship experience. What was your typical day like?

A. My internship experience was very valuable. On my first day, I was shown the computer program and thrown right into the thick of things, where I was expected to write headlines, deckheads and cutlines.

I normally only did first reads so that someone more experienced could read behind me, but I really felt myself growing throughout the internship. I worked Monday through Friday from 3:30 to 11:30 p.m., and by the third or fourth week I was already being trusted with some A1 copy.

It was always a thrill for me when I made a good catch or asked a question someone else hadn’t thought of. I once found a mistake in which the AP had written the entirely wrong country, and the slot editor called the AP and got them to issue a write-thru.

Also, I feel like it’s worth noting that everyone treated me with the utmost respect. They acted like I was a colleague instead of just some goofy college grad.

Q. What was the biggest challenge of the internship, and what was the greatest reward?

A. The biggest challenge was probably just getting into the flow of what copy needed to be read when as well as trying to figure out which advance copy needed to be read first. Some times of the night we wouldn’t be very busy, but I tried to do things that would be as helpful as possible. That just took time and asking questions so I could learn about which sections had deadlines first, etc.

The greatest reward was definitely stepping up my headline game and seeing a lot of my heads in print. Every time I wrote a headline, I jotted it down, and then at the end of the night after deadline, I would check to see which heads had been kept and which had been changed. As the summer progressed, I became a stronger headline writer, and more of my headlines survived.

Q. What advice would you give to students considering applying for a Dow Jones News Fund internship?

A. I would say studying for the test is the most important. I kind of took the test on a whim and didn’t think I’d land the internship, but I did study for it because I was interested in improving my craft. The application process may seem kind of mystifying, but if you study for the test and make it into the program, they teach you so much from there.

My weeklong residency before my internship was a great professional experience. It gave me the opportunity to learn from professionals in the field, and I felt like I was improving as a journalist every day.

Q. So what’s next for you?

A. I have moved back to reporting for the time being. I got a job with The Herald-Sun in Durham, N.C., and I have officially been on the job for a week and a half. It’s going well so far but keeping me really busy.

I don’t want to say I’m done with copy editing, though. I’m sure I’ll find my way back to it sometime in my career. Even so, the Dow Jones training has also made me a stronger writer because now I’m more aware of things like transitions, repetitive words and what pieces need to be in a story to make it complete.

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


The newsroom of China.org.cn, an English-language website based in Beijing.

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.cn 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  American journalism to China.