A White House reporter for the Associated Press found herself in a spot of bother this week: a tweet in which her “caption” did not identify one key figure was picked up by South African on Twitter and all hell broke loose.
One Darlene Superville was attending the G7 Summit in France and snapped a shot of a clutch of world leaders, one of whom was South African president Cyril Ramaphosa. Thing is, she initially called him an “unidentified leader” in her tweet (effectively a photo caption). She later re-did the tweet, this time with his name, but not before she had been called lazy and disrespectful by South Africans on Twitter. Many people suggested that a simple Google search would have done the trick.
I’m not sure about the lazy part of things: reporters are under huge pressure, with a multitude of tasks – from attending the event to taking pictures, from writing their report to maintaining a social media presence. I suspect time pressure got the better of Superville.
But by letting that happen, she opened herself to fair criticism for being disrespectful.
Captions – the rules
There is a long-standing protocol about pictures and naming the people who are in them.
I was inducted into the protocol on my very first day as a reporter. I was sent out with a photographer to do something that journalists very rarely do these days: I was simply to get the details for the caption.
The details are hazy now but I think it was a shot to promote a community event (a fete, perhaps). In the photograph, there was a small child. I did as I had been told in my training, and got the child’s name and checked the spelling. And walked away.
The photographer leaned over in an avuncular fashion and said: “How old is the kid?”
And I did not know. I had not asked. I went back and established that he was three. And the day was saved.
From that photographer I learned a key lesson: if there is a child in the picture, people will want to know how old they are.
Readers will also want to know the names of everyone in the picture. Everyone. I have in my time written down the names of ten or 12 people for a caption. (Publications will generally have their own internal rules about how big a crowd has to be before you can just say: “The staff of Widgets Incorporated cut the ribbon on their new premises.”).
And you cannot – really cannot – name some of the people in a picture and not others.
These then are the caption rules: get the ages of the kids, get all the names, ask for the spelling every single time. Smith might be spelled Psmith for all you know. (There’s an art to writing captions, once you have all the details: read my best tip.)
Getting it right
In one of my most miserable moments as a reporter, I once got the spelling of a teenager’s name wrong. His dad phoned and pointed out that that might be the only time in that boy’s life where he would be in the newspaper. But it was too late: I had got it wrong.
And so did Superville. Even if it was “just social media”, she broke one of the fundamental rules of journalism: get the names of the people in the picture, by whatever means possible.
Ms Superville should have known better.