No more lame cutlines, please

OK, journalists, I have a proposal: Can we ban the words “looks on” from cutlines? Please?

I hate lame words that don’t tell you anything. “Impact” is a peeve of mine.

(Was it a positive impact? A negative one? Big impact? Small impact? “My mom had a huge impact on my life.” Really? Was that because she beat you? Or because she nurtured you? Find a more interesting, more descriptive word.)

My latest peeve is cutlines (or captions) that tell the reader that one of the people in the picture is “looking on” or “looks on” as someone else does something more interesting.

Do we have to tell our readers that? Certainly we have to identify that dude who is over to the side or kind of in the background.

But can’t we just say, “Sitting beside him is John Doe”? Or perhaps we could give the reader some good information.

Instead of: “Store owner Jane Doe recounts the robbery attempt while cashier John Smith looks on.” Let’s try: “Store owner Jane Doe recounts the robbery attempt, joined by cashier John Smith, who called 911/wrestled the robber to the ground/missed the whole thing because he was on a smoke break.” Or can cashier John Smith at least be listening while the owner tells her story?

What got my dander up today was a photo on The Baltimore Sun website of a press conference with new Orioles manager Buck Showalter. Press conferences are tough to shoot and the cutlines are a nightmare to write, as there’s usually no action going on.

This screenshot from The Baltimore Sun shows a dreaded dull caption: "Buck Showalter is introduced as the Orioles' manager while president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail looks on."

Now, I’m not picking just on The Baltimore Sun. I love The Baltimore Sun. I pay to read it in print every day.

In defense of The Baltimore Sun, this photo was taken, processed and posted pretty quickly. And it’s a nice photo — I like the depth of field and the angle of the shot, from off to the side instead of straight-on. Hopefully my morning print edition will have a better caption.

It just reminded me that I see this wording all the time. If you do a Google News search of “looks on,” you’ll see scores of good photos with poor cutlines from all kinds of news organizations.

And this isn’t to pick on photographers, either. Sometimes they write the cutlines that you see in print and online, sometimes they don’t. Often, reporters write them. And certainly editors read them and have the option to send the reporter or photographer back to the drawing board.

My newspaper is just as guilty of having people “look on” as any other news organization. In fact, we might be worse. Perhaps I’ll start a “looking on” tally. I vow not to personally contribute to the tally!

UPDATE, AUG. 3: I was looking forward to reading the print edition cutline with the Buck Showalter photo, but alas, my newspaper did not get delivered this morning.

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13 thoughts on “No more lame cutlines, please

  1. Can’t help you there… sometimes “joined by cashier John Smith, who called 911/wrestled the robber to the ground/missed the whole thing because he was on a smoke break” doesn’t fit in the space they leave me on page. It then has to become “looks on” or “looking on” rather than. “to his left” Believe you me, I write very long cutlines only to have to cut them up (maybe that’s why they call them cutlines) once they hit the page.

    Elyzabeth, looking on sheepishly

  2. Buck Showalter is introduced as the Orioles’ manager while president of baseball operations Andy McPhail attempts to dislodge the spinach that was stuck in his teeth from lunch in the Camden Club.

    1. Very funny, John!

      Here’s mine: “Buck Showalter is introduced as the Orioles’ manager while president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail says a quiet prayer that *this* manager finally turns the team around, thus saving his job.”

  3. I love ya Pam, but after 10 years of working with you, this is strike one in my book. We hardly have enough time to get our lab work done in our shift these days and writing my captions is what takes me the longest in my lab work. I try and write the best captions I can and like you said sometimes we don’t write the final ones anyway. Many times you writers and word editors will change our captions and put in totally wrong info.

    Considering our lab time was cut from 2.5 hours to 1 hour, and sometimes you writers make sure you fill ever last white space in the photo book, you are lucky there is time to write any cutline at all. So sure in perfect world every person in the photo would have a detailed explanation of what they are doing in the cut, but the worlds not perfect and we do the best we can.

    If you made it this far, forget about it being strike one, you are still one of the best, but don’t pick on us photogs for the words underneath, we are doing the best we can. Besides you don’t hear us shooters making fun of writer photos do ya, oh wait maybe we do. Hey that could be a good post for my blog PhotoMonkeys.org.

    1. Paul, I didn’t mean to make this critical of photographers — for that, I’m sorry. I certainly appreciate the time constraints you work with. I hardly ever get to work with you guys any more, and that’s a bummer, because I think having a reporter-photographer team together on a story is the best way to go.

      At our newspaper, if you as the photographer write accurate, complete information in the cutlines, then you’ve done your job. But when the proofs are handed to me, I’m just being lazy if all I do is copy exactly what you wrote.

      Photographers are visual people and writers are word people. I should take all the information I have — your picture, your cutline info, my story, info that didn’t make the story, my writing skills — and write most interesting (but still accurate) cutline. This is why I appreciate when photographers save a program or flier from an event (especially if I wasn’t there), because it gives me extra information to use in the cutline.

      Photos and cutlines are big entry points for readers, so it’s my duty as a writer to write the best cutlines possible. And, in my opinion, that means axing “looks on” and coming up with a verb that’s punchier.

      I remember attending a writing seminar once and the writing coach encouraged reporters to take every writing assignment seriously and view every writing assignment as a chance to improve one’s craft. And he specifically mentioned cutlines. So many reporters roll their eyes at writing cutlines, but it’s writing nonetheless and we should take it seriously.

      And this is about editors, too. They should be challenging reporters to write well. And they should be raising a red flag when they read boring verbs like “looks on.” But they don’t.

  4. Pam, you make a lot of sense and I hear where you’re coming from. But while “looking on” is not pretty, but it does have the advantage of being accurate. I’ve always been of the school that the less said the better, let the photo speak for itself. I’d be afraid that trying to punch up a boring cutline would lead to inaccuracy or worse, attempts at entertainment. Someone added a line about “blue dog democrats” to my cutline of a blue furred dog yesterday, and I don’t like it. Why add that layer of meaning, why bring up those associations? Because the photo’s not strong enough? I say let it stand or fall on it’s own. The cutline for that Orioles photo is boring because it is a boring photo. No amount of creative writing is going to change that.
    My 2 cents, worth exactly that. It’s great to be having a real discussion about journalism though, thanks Pam!

    1. Good point, Josh. I can imagine it’s weird to see someone do something with your photo that you didn’t intend. It was a picture of an unusual dog, had nothing to do with politics, but a political joke was made — and it’s a joke that I imagine most of our readers won’t get. Cutlines definitely have to be accurate and sometimes jazzing them up can turn out badly.

  5. Josh… I was wondering about that, too. I rolled my eyes when I saw the blue dog/democrat line. And it did change my opinion of the photo… (for some reason Janine Garafalo popped into my head)

  6. Reporters are overall ok when it comes to cutlines, and I feel bad sometimes that we give you more work to do. Especially when we do a slideshow, that’s a lot of cuts to write.
    But editors, geez, where do you begin? Profession wide, they almost do everything wrong. They are visual illiterates trying to attract the attention of a public trained to be visual genuises. And then they wonder why we’re losing readers.
    They crop the photos poorly. They place the photos poorly, ie below the fold. They cannot tell the difference between a good photo and a bad one, they literally cannot see it. They run photos solely to flatter the egos of local businessmen. They add their crazy old timer jokes to cutlines. Photos are chosen to run based on personal prejudices of the editors. On and on.
    By their disrespect for photography the editor shows that a photo is essentially valueless. The reader picks up on that message, but translate that as the paper as a whole is valueless.

  7. Wow, Josh! You must work for a newspaper that has a photography department. My newspaper’s photo editor is a computer next to the copier/printer/scanner/pasta maker that I affectionately call “Andy.”

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