Stories with pictures

EVERY PICTURE TELLS A STORY. And, whether you’re giving good or bad news, every story must have a picture. The design of the BBC News app takes the form of a grid of images, which means that each feature has to be supported by an introductory photograph.

But if you’re a hard-pressed sub editor on a deadline, how do you guarantee that you can find a picture that matches the story you’re posting? The answer: you cheat. All the screenshots in this feature were taken on the same day, a week before Christmas. And as we can see, many of them have only the most tenuous links to the story they purport to depict.


Sometimes it’s an easy call. If you’re reporting an allegation of match fixing against a footballer, then you show an image of the footballer. If the story is about a former editor of the News of the World, then it’s right and proper that his mugshot should grace the announcement. The announcement of Google buying a robot manufacturer is rightly served by a photograph of one of the company’s robots, the revelation of a tablet for sale for under £30 is best accompanied by a shot of that tablet.


Sometimes the link between the image and the text is more tenuous. When the story is about the rising cost of booking fees when buying tickets for live events, there’s no obvious image to accompany it. But since one of the events mentioned is a Jimmy Carr performance, then placing Carr’s photo at the top of the story performs two roles: it draws the reader into the piece, by giving them a celebrity to catch their eye; and it highlights by example the sort of event for which overcharging takes place.

Often, the image used will appear to represent the story without actually doing so. The report of a deaf man treated as a dementia patient is accompanied by a close-up of a man wearing a hearing aid. This isn’t the same deaf man as in the story, of course, or we’d have been shown his face. In fact, the man in this shot isn’t deaf at all, but just a little hard of hearing.

A piece about the ongoing investigation into whether universities should allow male and female students to be segregated when attending lectures by guest muslim speakers is accompanied by a shot of a group of male and female students. Of course, it would be a mistake to show their faces, since that would imply that they were in some way directly connected with the case, so instead we see them from the back. So: a piece about gender segregation is illustrated by an image of four unsegregated students, their arms clutching each other to demonstrate just how completely unsegregated they really are. And those three kids? They’re not real. They’re models. 


The faces issue is often a problem when the story is about children or young people. If the children are professional models who have signed release forms, then it’s OK to show their faces. But if the child in the photograph is a real person, rather than a hired stunt kid, then you can’t show their face unless they’re directly related to the story. So a feature on grammar schools failing to help poorer children is accompanied by a shot of a faceless child sitting at a school desk. Is this a grammar school? Probably not. Is this child demonstrably poor? Not judging by the fact that she’s brought bottled water to school with her, or that she’s wearing a school uniform.

What this particular image does demonstrate, though, is the power of the photo caption to make the photograph seem relevant to the story. The caption here reads: “Sir Michael said he thought school summer holidays were too long”. The caption bears no relation whatsoever to the photograph, which depicts a child obviously not on holiday. So why is it there?

Just as every story needs a picture, so every picture needs a caption. It’s one of the rules of journalism. But here, sub editors can work in a clever trick. Even if the picture doesn’t relate to the story, the caption will refer to the story, rather than the image, so that when people read it they’re fooled into thinking that the story and the image are linked. Get it?

A story about falling inflation is illustrated by a stock shot of a gas ring. The caption: “Recently announced rises in energy are yet to take effect”. A story about rising house prices in London is accompanied by a stock shot of Monopoly houses on a map of the UK. The caption reads: “Prices rose across the country and hit their peak in some areas”.

A warning story about Android text-sharing apps is accompanied by a shot of someone using their phone to take a picture of a skeleton on a screen . Come again? Maybe the caption will make sense of the image: “The Android text-sharing apps exploit the unlimited texting part of mobile contracts”. Nope. No help there.

The point is that once a picture appears in a magazine, in a newspaper, on a website or even in a news app, no-one questions why it’s there. As long as the caption relates to the story, we’re fooled into thinking that the picture must be relevant – after all, the caption relates to the picture, right? Except that as we’ve seen, it often doesn’t.

So when you’re putting together a story that desperately needs an image, and you can’t come up with a relevant one, then use an irrelevant one. But make sure the caption ties the reader back into the text.


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