Photos, headlines present pitfalls for journalists


An item in a recent column by Laura Vozzella on Page 2B of The Sun - with the heading "The rich are just like you and me department" - describes a casually dressed Mayo A. Shattuck III buying paper products at the discount Target discount store in Towson.

The Shattuck part of Vozzella's column, which is designed to be a lively and irreverent mix of politics and people, was accompanied by a photo illustration of Shattuck, the CEO of Constellation Energy Group, carrying a large package of Brawny paper towels. At the bottom of the column, a line of type explained that the original photo of Shattuck (dressed in a suit) was by a Sun staff photographer, and the original photo of the paper towels was by the Associated Press.

Despite this explanation, a number of readers were confused, dumbfounded and angry about the use of a photo illustration in this context. Shattuck, of course, is the most visible energy industry official involved in the continuing controversy over BGE's pending rate increase.

Reader Laila Atallah said: "I had a number of friends tell me that they believed The Sun was being unfair and dishonest in its treatment of Mr. Shattuck. I don't think this is the case, but I could not explain it to them or myself based on how it appeared in the newspaper."

Atallah's frustration and those of others was understandable. The illustration clearly violated The Sun's written guidelines: "that the creative effect should make it obvious to the casual reader that the image is clearly fictional and not an accurate depiction of a subject or event."

Why is this important for readers? Because the integrity and credibility of photos and graphics in The Sun and other newspapers are just as essential as the integrity and credibility of articles and headlines.

Computer applications such as PhotoShop have greatly improved the way a newspaper edits and produces photographs. But as The Sun's deputy managing editor for presentation/editing, Monty Cook, said: "For all the good they accomplish, they also make photo manipulation all too easy. That's why we wrote a policy outlining their proper use. Simply using a credit line labeling the image 'photo illustration' does not allow us to do whatever we want to an image."

Cook acknowledged that the Shattuck image had been used incorrectly. As a result, the newspaper is reviewing with all its page designers and artists the importance of always adhering to the guidelines.

Headline content also consistently generates complaints from readers. Because headlines accompanying articles must be condensed to fit in restricted space, they are sometimes incomplete or sometimes fail to convey the proper tone. In my view, writing consistently good headlines is one the most difficult tasks in newspaper journalism.

Reactions to a recent front-page headline offer a good example.

A June 8 article about the failure in the U.S. Senate of a vote to amend the Constitution to ban gay marriage had this headline: "Bid to ban gay unions flops; Senate Republicans fail in measure aimed to fire up conservatives."

Reader Joni Stimpson was among the readers who objected to the headline. "The Sun loses so much credibility with me (just as Fox News does) when its headlines contain blatant editorializing. If the articles can't express a reasonable amount of neutrality, how can I believe that the article itself is not biased?"

Reader Linda Davidson said, "Once again, The Sun has implied incorrectly that conservatives are gay-bashing control freaks."

John McIntyre, The Sun's assistant managing editor for copy desks, responded: "The headline was designed to reflect the whole story, which included comments by Paul Weyrich, a formidable figure in the conservative movement, that the effort was not a success even in its intention of energizing conservatives."

McIntyre agreed, however, that using "flops" was a poor choice because the word was too flip and emotionally charged for the story. In this instance, "fails" would have been preferable.

Despite the difficulty inherent in headline writing, headlines must be compelling enough to persuade readers to read the stories. This is a daily challenge for copy editors.

As McIntyre reminded the copy desk after this incident, it is crucial that neutral words be used in headlines for sensitive stories, particularly those that are politically charged.

I think many readers would agree.

Paul Moore's column appears Sundays.

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