The basic rules of caption writing are pretty straightforward:
1. Tell readers who is in a picture and what they are doing.
2. Provide a bit of context that draws readers into a story or helps them understand that story better.
There are other guidelines, but those are mostly stylistic. The most important thing to remember from a journalistic standpoint is that pictures need at least some explanation so they don’t cause confusion or lead to misinterpretation.
Unfortunately, design sometimes gets in the way of good intentions. In the picture above from The New York Times, the caption explains the who, when and where. Beyond that, we’re left to guess.
My sons suggested that John Kerry and Chuck Hagel were playing rock-paper-scissors with Japanese officials. If the picture were illustrating decision-making in the U.S. Congress, I could have bought into that theory. With foreign policy, I’m less certain. But I’m getting off topic.
The problem is that we’re left guessing, largely because a designer decided that the caption needed only a single line. That’s a common problem with Times captions. All too often, misguided design rules lead to captions that can only be described as lacking. Or confusing. Or perplexing. Or maddening. Or other words I prefer not to use.
Other times, the captions are hidden so well on a page that the designers seem to be auditioning for a role in the creation of Where’s Waldo? books. But I I’m getting off topic again.
Still other times, the captions are missing altogether, as in the example to the right. Presumably the map shows something about signal speed for AT&T, Verizon and Sprint. But what?
At the very least, we could have received directions to play rock-paper-scissors to decide for ourselves what the images meant. Interestingly, The Times has an online version of the game that will allow you to play against a computer.
But that’s no way to write captions. Is it?