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Public editor: When photo captions go wrong, the message gets muddled

Great photo captions are like poetry, or a funny tweet. They grab your attention with few words, make you think and with luck do it with humour or insight.

I've written before about the importance and impact of a great headline. I pointed to a survey of reading habits called the EyeTrack study by the U.S. Poynter Institute, which found (by tracking where the eyes go on a page) that readers love photos in newspapers. Their eyes "followed a common pattern of navigation. The majority of readers entered all pages through the dominant photo or illustration, then travelled to the dominant headline, then to teasers and cutlines, and finally to the text."

And if you read a great caption first, you are drawn to the article. Rather than good examples, there have been two complaints in the past week about Globe and Mail cutlines that have failed for different reasons.

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The front page of the Report on Business on Wednesday featured a photo of a mature conventional oil field in California. The article was about unconventional production booms and the political pressure for the U.S. to end the country's ban on crude oil exports.

The cutline to the photo said: "Shale oil production is a major factor in forecasts that the United States will become the world's largest oil producer by next year."

This is true and factual, but it is misleading to introduce that fact with a photo that shows quite a different oil production than shale.

A Calgary reader said "contrary to the caption, the photo used to illustrate this article is not of 'shale oil production', but a picture of the Chevron Kern River field and heavy oil facility near Bakersfield, Calif. This image bears absolutely no resemblance to what a shale oil field looks like. Modern production practices use multiple well pads that minimize the number of wells and dramatically reduce the need for production flow lines. I am dismayed that you would use what amounts to an inflammatory picture to illustrate this article. It is no wonder that people are so upset about the development of shale oil and gas fields if they are led to believe that this is what will be built in their backyards."

While the headline talked about "the oil boom" and the many wells in the photo suggested a "boom", a reader would of course expect that given the caption information, that this was a photo of shale oil production, which it is not.

I would think a more accurate photo and/or better caption information could have been found.

Another reader said that photo captions should explain what is going on in the photo, and I agree. "I have recently noticed noticed a tendency in the Globe where a photograph is captioned by by a general summary of the story; in effect another headline or sub heading rather than a factual caption," the reader writes. "Someone at the Globe seems to consider a news photograph to be a pretty blob of colour to decorate the page. For example there was a story recently about how Dallas is coping with the Kennedy assassination being a prominent part of its identity. Accompanying the article, as I recall, was photograph of a tearful woman accompanied by two men. The caption merely repeated the basic premise of the story. Who was this woman, these men? If these facts don't interest the editors,what is the point of printing the photo? Decoration, filler?" he asked

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Of course photos are not decoration or filler but an important part of journalism. They tell part of the story and can have much more impact and tell more (the old "a picture is worth a 1,000 words") than a news story of the same size.

If you would like to contact me, you can do so at

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About the Author
Public Editor

Sylvia Stead has been a reporter and editor at the Globe since 1975, after graduating from the University of Western Ontario in Journalism with a minor in Political Science. She won the Board of Governors Award there in 1974. As a reporter, Sylvia covered courts, education and Queen's Park. More


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