The picture speaks for itself, as the saying goes. Or does it?
If a picture on its own imparts all that the viewer needs to know, why do news services universally pair photographs with captions giving information about the pictured scene?
Clearly, a stand-alone news photograph, with no explanatory text, is often inadequate to communicate events, but how much information is required to accurately convey to readers the significance of what appears in the photograph? The inclusion or omission of key information in a photo caption can greatly influence the reader’s basic understanding – or lack thereof – of events in the picture.
Take the Associated Press’ July 16 minimalist captions about an Israeli airstrike in the Gaza Strip.
The captions state: “A view of an explosion caused by Israeli airstrikes in Gaza City, Saturday, July 16, 2022. (AP Photo/Mohammed Ali)” (three images) and “Sparks from an explosion caused by Israeli airstrikes in in Gaza City, Saturday, July 16, 2022” (one image). These captions omit two pieces of information essential to the reader’s understanding of events.
Neither caption mentions the fact that the Israeli airstrikes were in response to the Palestinian firing of rockets towards Israel. (One rocket intercepted by the Iron Dome was heading towards a civilian population, and at least two fell in open areas within Israel.)
In a second egregious omission, the incomplete captions omit the fact that the army said the airstrikes targeted advanced Hamas weapons-making facilities. The IDF tweeted: “In response to the rockets fired from Gaza at Israel tonight, we targeted one of Hamas’ most significant rocket production sites in Gaza. This strike will significantly impede Hamas’ force-building capabilities.” In addition: “In response to these attacks aimed at Israeli civilians, our fighter jets struck an additional Hamas weapons manufacturing site in Gaza.”
Unlike the AP, Agence France Presse captions commendably note both that the Palestinian rocket fire which prompted the airstrikes and that the strikes targeted Hamas weapon production facilities:
Fires are seen following an Israeli airstrike in Gaza city on July 16, 2022. Israeli warplanes struck a weapons manufacturing facility in the Gaza Strip early on July 16, the military said, after rocket fire against Israeli territory. The exchange of fire came hours after US President Joe Biden visited Israel and the occupied West Bank. MAHMUD HAMS / AFP
Lacking key data that the retaliatory Israeli airstrikes targeting Hamas’ rocket production infrastructure, readers are left to draw their own conclusions from the image and incomplete caption. News consumers would reasonably come away with the completely mistaken impression that an unprovoked Israel targeted innocent Palestinian civilians in the otherwise peaceful Gaza Strip.
When pictures can’t communicate all of the facts, news outlets have a particularly weighty responsibility to do so. As of this writing, AP has failed to follow up on CAMERA’s request to amend the captions to include the vital information.