This is a column on the importance of words and pictures working together. Both need to be treated with equal respect.

This column appeared in News Photographer Magazine in March, 2010.

 Captions Should Be Based on Fact, Not Fiction

By Paul Martin Lester


 I had to look it up. There are three definitions. See if you can tell which one upset devotees of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints when the word was used in a caption to describe the “Quorum of the Twelve Apostles” on the front page of The Daily Universe, the newspaper of Brigham Young University produced by students of the Department of Communications:

  • a genus of moth with more than 12,000 species,

  • a genus of flower related to the daisy, or

  • persons who have abandoned their religious faith.

As you might imagine, the error caused great embarrassment to the newspaper’s staff, which had to run around the campus, pick up the 18,000 copies already distributed, and replace them with new issues with a corrected caption. The good news? It wasn’t entirely the fault of the photographer, David Scott.

According to the news story that explained the goof, a caption written by Scott misspelled the word apostle. When a student copy editor spell checked the word through InDesign, the first possible replacement was the worst that could be used. Without thinking, that choice was selected and missed by other editors up the line that included a “professional staff proofreader” until after it was published.

Sloppy professionalism, but unethical? No. The key in determining whether an action or inaction is unethical is in the phrase, “Do your job and don’t cause unjustified harm.” In this case, although the jobs of caption writing and editing were not performed well, the mistakes should not be considered unethical because the harm caused can be attributed to simple human error. As long as grammar and typographical errors, name misspellings, and so on are honest mistakes and not due to some hidden agenda – political, social, economic, and/or sarcastic reasons – the blunder does not rise to the level of unethical behavior given the pressures of deadlines, information overload, and inexperience.

Other picture captions cannot be dismissed as easily. For the well-known image of the Tiananmen Square tank protestor of 1989, different captions were written for the same picture to reflect different political agendas. In the Western press the caption mentioned the bravery of the man who risked his life to stop the column of tanks. The words from the Chinese government stated how much the military cared about its citizens, shown by pausing their progress until the man left the scene. Same picture – different words.

Last year in “The Lede,” a blog of The New York Times, Robert Mackey reported that a caption was labeled “Error of the Year” after the person in a coffin was identified as the current and controversial president of the Philippines, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, and not the former head, Corazon C. Aquino, who had died. Despite protests to the contrary, some critics assumed that the caption error was made on purpose – wishful thinking and/or a form of political commentary aimed against the unpopular Arroyo.

One of the most memorable caption controversies of recent years happened during the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina. Two news photographs sparked discussions within newsrooms and classrooms around the country after survivors were shown engaged in the same action – wading in chest-high polluted water while they carried food and drinks. Unfortunately, the African American man in one picture was categorized in the caption as “looting” a grocery store while the Anglo couple had left the store after “finding” their items. Suddenly, the two photographs with their word descriptions became icons for racial stereotyping.

[cover of 'On Floods and Photo Ops']

On Floods and Photo Ops was almost a book-length analysis of the two Katrina flood photographs. I planned to interview those pictured, the photographers, the caption writers, and their bosses. The point I wanted to make, apart from a commentary on a type of media racial profiling, was that images in themselves are ethically neutral – it is the words accompanying visual messages that lead to misrepresentation and misunderstanding.

As important as such a treatment might have been, the book eventually became an 82,580-word examination of two set-up media events about 80 years apart that showed two politicians pictured with children who had recently suffered unimaginable terrors. One lesson from such a close-up view: the two ordinary and unremarkable photo ops illustrate how easily children can be exploited for political purposes.

But beyond the picture analyses, the book is also a testament to the importance of words and pictures working together when treated with equal respect. As Wilson Hicks, an influential picture editor for Life magazine, wrote in his 1952 book Words and Pictures: “It is not correct to say that either medium supplements the other. The right verb is ‘complements.’”

 In this convergent age of multi-tasking and multimedia, you should be as careful with the words you use as with the subjects you frame and not tolerate carelessness or callousness for any reason from either one.