A survey of reading habits called the EyeTrack study by the U.S. Poynter Institute 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."
Interestingly, a later online eyetracking study by Stanford University and Poynter found a different result. "Online readers viewed text first – headlines, briefs and cutlines. Then they turned to photos and graphics."
But in both cases, photo cutlines or captions are very well read and have enormous impact in a very few words.
I heard from a reader concerned that there were no cutlines on the front page of the Arts and Life section on occasion. "Reading multiple newspapers as I do, both in print and online, I get the impression that they have forgotten how to do cutlines properly – they're either left out altogether, or wrong or incomplete or adding to confusion by being placed far away from the picture. The old cliche about 'a picture is worth a thousand words' may not really be true, but a picture plus 10 words is likely worth 1,010 words. And what this means is that newspapers – including The Globe and Mail – may be missing a chance to tell their stories better," he said.
Arts and Life acting editor Kathryn Hayward said they treat the photo "as a main sell to the story – the head and deck speak directly to the image at hand. We run a photo credit, but no caption. It's an enticement, meant to cause readers to turn to read the story, it is not the story itself."
I've been collecting a few great cutlines over the past week to show what a difference good caption writing can make. In the photo attached to this blog post, you will see a lovely shot of a cute four-year-old working on a puzzle on his first day of kindergarten. Now, the cutline could merely state the obvious: that he is working on a puzzle. Instead, editor Ken Carriere pulled a great line from the article by reporter Caroline Alphonso and the cutline read: "Four-year-old Siddiqui had a two-part plan for his first full day of kindergarten: to colour and to play."
A brilliant bit of writing that jumped out on the page and made me smile. Night Editor Patrick Brethour said: "Great cutlines are the gold nuggets of newspapers, a source of surprise and delight for readers. Done well, as with Ken Carriere's full-day kindergarten cutline, they elevate the story. The beauty of Ken's cutline is that it spoke to the theme of the story – the beneficial effect of full-day kindergarten – and referenced the content of the photograph with a delightfully light touch. A bad cutline, by contrast, will tell the reader something that they can figure out on their own: 'A boy plays with blocks at an all-day kindergarten.'"
While editors often take a great phrase from a story for the cutline, as in the case above, sometimes mistakes are made. In Thursday's paper, a story about retired lieutenant-general Andrew Leslie joining the Liberals as an unpaid adviser referenced a phrase in the article about the military needing "more teeth, less tail." That was incorrectly transposed in the cutline to read that he had called for job cuts in order to provide the military with "less teeth and more tail."
Two readers raised this with me and one said: "I don't think any retired general would want a prominent story about himself paint him as supporting an ineffective and bloated military!"
There is a special challenge with cutlines of standalone photos (a photo with no story attached). A great one last week was a TIFF red carpet shot. The headline and caption were both brilliantly written by another Globe editor who prefers to remain anonymous. "Go ahead, please hug the movie stars" was the headline of a photo showing fans behind the barrier leaning out to do just that. The caption itself said: "Parineeti Chopra greets fans at a screening of her film A Random Desi Romance, a small-budget Bollywood movie that has the nerve to suggest that not all love stories must end in marriage. If that's not shocking enough, Chopra smokes in the movie."
For editors, great cutline writing like this means you cover the facts correctly, explaining the picture, but with a little attitude, a little cheek and a great sense of humour.
If you would like to contact me about a journalistic issue, please do so at firstname.lastname@example.org