Monday, January 23, 2006

Stamp out cutline literalism

The rosy-fingered dawn of a new semester seems the ideal time to launch a crusade against AP-style literalism in cutlines. The space under photos is some of the most valuable real estate you'll get to work with, and you need to invest in it wisely.

The AP's job is to tell you what you're looking at and -- with an eye on the archives -- when. Thus it tends to take a painfully literal approach to cutline writing. If two people are walking through the snow in Yerevan, for example, it might* write:

Local residents walk in snow in Yerevan, Armenia, Monday, Jan. 23, 2006.

Or if two people are walking down a snowy street in Yerevan, it might** write:

Local residents walk in snow in a street in Yerevan, Armenia, Monday, Jan. 23, 2006.

Thus, a number of the more common cutline verbs are on the forbidden list. Chief among them is "celebrate," as in

Seattle quarterback Matt Hasselbeck celebrates a touchdown pass to tight end Jerramy Stevens in the first quarter of the Seahawks' 34-14 victory on Sunday at Qwest Field in Seattle. (1B Monday, and packed with two or three too many prepositional phrases for comfortable reading).

But there are others,*** notably "gestures":
French President Jacques Chirac gestures as he speaks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel during their meeting in Versailles, west of Paris, Monday Jan. 23, 2006.

Brazil's Minister for Culture Gilberto Gil gestures as he addresses the media at the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels, Monday Jan. 23, 2006.

Germany's Tommy Haas gestures to the chair umpire as he reacts to a line call during his fourth round match against Switzerland's Roger Federer at the Australian Open Tennis Tournament in Melbourne, Australia, Monday, Jan 23, 2006. (Tennis fans will note that the same cutline appears with two different photos of two different gestures.)

Lt. Gen. Bruce Wright, head of the United States Forces in Japan, gestures during a speech at a professional luncheon at Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan in Tokyo Monday, Jan. 23, 2006.

Our job, on the other hand, is not to tell people what they're looking at. That's what their eyes are for. Our job is to take the cutline data and any accompanying stories (if you're writing a cutline for a standalone, ask for the latest versions of any stories that go with it) and tell people why they're looking at the photo in question. We do that best by:
1) Placing the visible actions into context.
2) Complementing the other big type (hed, decks, pullouts and the like).

Here's a nicely done example from 1B Tuesday. I can see a guy in blue who's probably at the free-throw line, and I can see some fans waving orange stuff, but I can't see the context:

Christian Moody faced a frenzied student section while he missed two free throws with 0.4 seconds left in a tied game.

And an overly literal one from today's Second Front:

Elizabeth Bayless, left, and Heather Lundholm, right, enjoy the unseasonably warm weather as they lean against one of the MU Columns on Thursday.

See the problem? The photo shows two people leaning on a column, so don't waste time and space telling me that two people are leaning on a column. Leave out the beginning of the "as they" clause and you're left with context and explanation: ... enjoy the unseasonably warm weather Thursday at the MU Columns. (And yes, once you've identified one of a pair as "left," you don't need to say the other is "right.")

Got it? So don't tell me someone who's smiling "smiles" (1A Wednesday), or that people running in the streets "run in the streets" (3A Thursday). Stick with stuff I can't see.

If you've been keeping up with the discussion over at Bill Walsh's Blogslot, by the way, this approach is the sure cure for cutlines that say "Firefighters battle a blaze ..."

* Might, hell. That's exactly what it did.
** Ibid.
*** And you can look it up.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

And then there's the AP cutline writers' habit of stringing as many as seven or eight prepositional phrases together in a cutline. On top of their inability to use commas correctly, it makes for some interesting reading.

9:33 AM, February 03, 2006  

Post a Comment

<< Home