Sunday, September 13, 2009

Gaudete! Michigan vincit

Brian raises a point below that's worth a post of its own -- as much fun as it would be to try a few "jubilate" cutlines, is there really a practical alternative to "celebrate" with sports photos? Not to answer a question with a question, but probably the best alternative is: Why do cutlines need verbs? Or more specifically, why do cutlines need verbs describing the stuff that -- at least, if you trust your lying eyes --is going on right there inside the frame for all to see?

Cutlines are one of the things the NYT consistently does well, and one reason is that NYT cutline writers are really good at sticking to one of my favorite precepts: Don't tell me what I'm seeing, tell me why I'm seeing it. So let's look at a few of today's NYT sports photos and what copy editors tell us about them. Conveniently, the lede college football photo is the same one that provided the first of the Freep's five "celebrate" sports cutlines:

Quarterback Tate Forcier, right, threw* a touchdown pass with 11 seconds left that helped Michigan take a big step forward after a 3-9 season last year.

Nice and informative -- one chunk of display type is complementing all the others. We don't know the name of the player hugging him, but maybe that's another rule we should question more often.**

Downpage is another classic of the genre -- a shouting athlete shaking hands with fans -- that usually ends up with a "celebrates with fans" or "shouts as he shakes hands with" cutline. Instead:

Houston's Case Keenum completed 32 of 46 passes for 366 yards and 3 touchdowns, including the winning score with 6:42 to play.

You can't always see whether a play is a success or a failure. In cases like that, you need to complement the image:

U.C.L.A.'s David Carter sacking Tennessee's Johnathan Crompton, who had 93 yards passing and 3 interceptions in the Volunteers' 19-15 loss.

But not all action photos need explaining:

Picking up in a second-set tie-breaker, Rafael Nadal completed a three-set victory over Fernando Gonzalez to reach the semifinals.

And particularly with archival photos, who says you need a verb at all?

Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays before the second game of the 1962 World Series.

What the Times is doing is basic, fundamental, hit-behind-the-runner desk work. It's making decisions one at a time and letting content drive them, rather than following an abstract rule about what an abstract modal caption looks like under a 30-year-old picture in a journalism textbook. That doesn't mean Times editing is always good. It means decisions you think about are almost always better than decisions you make by rote.

Is there a better verb than "celebrate"? No, but there's a better idea: Tell me why they're celebrating.

* Past tense for stuff that happened outside the frame.
Certainly once you get out of state.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

It would be nice (but insufficiently cynical) to believe that the "celebrate" captions are there to help make the Web site accessible. I have a suspicion that your typical desk has no notion of writing two captions, one for the ALT= and one for the fully-sighted to read below the photo, but that's what's actually required for proper accessibility. (Several of your NYT examples would be totally unhelpful to a blind person, who actually does want a description of what the photo she can't see is showing, but the explanation is simply redundant to the article text.)

Hmmm, my CAPTCHA is "nacropsy". Is Google trying to tell me something?

10:57 PM, September 13, 2009  
Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

Yeah, but what does "celebrate" really tell you?

5:00 PM, September 14, 2009  

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