Your label here: the power of words in a picture

The Monitor's language columnist considers how the labels put on news stories and public events shape our thinking.

One of the pleasures of being a newspaper reporter is getting to hang out with news photographers.

I've learned a lot from them over the years, sometimes to my own chagrin. One camera-toting colleague once grumbled about another shooter who was "always shooting pictures of signs."

"Oh, that's a problem?" I thought, but didn't say it aloud. And then I realized that of course it was, from the perspective of pure photography. I made a mental note to try to pay more attention to the real world out there and really see it. Too often I read it instead.

But harrumph, my train of thought rolled along, signs sometimes contain stuff that's useful to have in an image, especially a documentary one.

Note how protest marchers in foreign countries sometimes carry placards in English – they're striving to convey a message to audiences in the West, particularly the United States, who will see news photos or video footage of their placards.

But street demonstrators aren't the only ones trying to exploit the power of words in a picture to get their message across. We think of television news as in contrast with print journalism, but there are lots of words on the TV screen – those labels for the convenience of viewers just tuning in, for instance.

Hotels know the value of having their name on the lecterns in their meeting rooms. If a newsmaker gives a speech there, the hotel name will appear on the evening news and in the paper. Think tanks and conference organizers often wallpaper their names and key phrases behind their speakers and panelists.

And of course the White House and other politicians do the same thing, with slogans such as "Fighting Climate Change" behind the president.

But note the difference, dear reader, between these labels – whether on backdrops behind public speakers, or across the bottom of your television screen – and a traditional news headline.

With something like "Fighting Climate Change," you've got a verb form, and an active one at that ("fighting"). But it's not a predicate verb – not one that's got its engine running and is in gear. The verb has no "doer." Lacking tense, or an indication of time, it gives us no clue when the action is occurring or when it might be completed.

Contrast this with a traditional news headline, which is essentially a complete sentence, with a subject and a verb. It's a much clearer statement that something has happened.

Labels have their uses, some of them legitimate. But be alert to the way they can represent an effort to control a news story.

Having words in the picture can sometimes backfire – even when they're not an effort to control anything. A former colleague had a good story about a senior White House official facing the press during a major scandal – the Iran-contra scandal, perhaps. The official's message was along the lines of "I know this is a mess, but we'll get to the bottom of it – and justice will be served." He was at that lectern we've all seen countless times, with the logo reading "The White House Washington."

Except that someone or something got between that logo and the news photographer who was shooting the official. Or maybe the photographer chose an artful angle, or, who knows, a photo editor might have cropped the picture in a particular way.

And so, for whatever reason, the words that appeared under the senior official read simply: "The White Washing."

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