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Crosstalk: Is a picture worth 1,000 words?

“A picture is worth a thousand words” is commonly referenced in modern journalism, and I’ve found it true on many levels.

At the literal, most simplistic level, a single photograph is capable of communicating in a moment what it would take 1,000 words or more to describe in full. A fire, a car accident, a new construction project. A photograph answers many of the most important questions: the who, what, when, where and why of the moment.

With the introduction of the offset printing process we use today, which brought photographic reproduction into the mainstream of newspaper publication, a camera quickly became an important item in the journalist’s toolbox.

Rather than describing in words alone the extent of a fire or the physical details of a crash, a photograph could communicate that information in an instant, allowing the reporter to concentrate on the bigger questions at hand: How did the fire start? What caused the truck to leave the road and smash into the building? Does something need to be done to better save lives or protect property?

The capacity of a photograph to capture details even the best observer is prone to miss in the heat of the moment has made photography an important tool for those involved in finding out what happened and why, Not just for journalists but fire and crash investigators as well.

These days, even the best of word smiths, armed with pad and pencil, will also carry a camera or work with a photographer.

“A picture is worth a thousand words” is true in other ways as well. When I was working as a young freelancer, you could see the correlation in the rates offered by publications seeking editorial submissions: A 1,000 word story and a photograph were pretty close in value at many publications — the photograph being valued somewhat higher. It takes about the same amount of time to cover an event as a photographer as it does as a reporter, and the cost of photographic equipment is far greater than that needed by a reporter.

The “thousand word” valuation suggests the two are on equal footing — as they should be.

The real rub, at a newspaper, is not the question of value, or benefit, but the long-running fight over space.

When the Chronicle publishes a four-column picture, that photo takes about as much space as a 1,000 word story.

Not a problem, when there is plenty of room.

But when space is tight, the battle is joined. Photographers point out that nothing is more off putting than a sea of grey text. Reporters point out that a two-column photograph includes as much information in one double the size.

Both are correct, and it falls on the editor to negotiate the war zone.

Which is sometimes tough, since here at the Chronicle the editors are reporters and photographers as well.

As an editor, I am forced to acknowledge that few photographs can tell the whole story, even with a well written cutline. And I am forced to acknowledge that words are unlikely to engage the reader effectively by themselves.

The truth is that a photograph, coupled with a well told story, has a combined value greater than the sum of its parts.

Even the best of news photographs has to be explained.

Those iconic images we remember years later captured the visual essence of a story first reported in words and images, sound and video.

Their impact was not that of the image alone, but by reporters, editors and designers as well.

Words capture what photographs cannot; and photographs capture what words are unable to express. The tension between the two is that found between equals.

— Mark Gibson

The idiom “a picture is worth a thousand words” has been attributed to newspaper editor Tess Flanders, who was likely justifying filling space with an image instead of sitting down at a typewriter and tapping out a worthy story.

This is a regular source of disagreement between Mark and I, even more roundly debated than our vastly different political ideologies.

My stance is that there are times when a picture CANNOT replace words because complex information needs to be conveyed, such as details about how a new government policy will affect you or a land-use decision, such as a subdivision proposal, will play out on the ground.

Mark’s stance is that showing you the bare piece of ground with some little bird (his favorite thing to photograph) hopping around tells the story of what will happen if houses are built on the lot and trees removed. As far as government decisions go, Mark lapses into a coma reading these stories just to make a point. Who cares about Neita or I waxing poetic about people’s taxes going up or a lost right? It all could have been said with a photo of a homeless person, according to Mark.

I hate seeing him pout, which pretty much happens every week when we start discussing the next Crosstalk subject (Mark hates politics).

I try to make up for this unpleasantness by being nice when Mark bogarts most of the space in a special section or plops his latest bird photo on the front page.

I grudgingly admire that he can, apparently, sit motionless for hours so that birds land all around him; sort of like some Disney character, only much more offbeat and not at all cheerful.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not complaining about Mark’s work, he is an award-winning photographer for a reason. It’s just that I can spend hours crafting a story only to have him groan the moment he looks at a page full of words.

What’s not to like about words? They can be beautiful — rhapsody is my favorite because it looks and sounds good — and they can evoke emotion. A foreboding scene can be set by describing shadows that creep up the dank walls of a derelict castle as the sun sinks into the horizon.

Oh sure, Mark would just snap a photo of the ancient ruin that would give you the creeps. But that picture would not raise the hair on the back of your neck as much as reading that nearby villagers frequently hear a woman weeping on All Hallow’s Eve, but they no longer dare investigate since anyone who approaches the castle on that night vanishes, never to be seen again.

See what I’m getting at here? Let’s try another one just because I am having fun. This time we will use a non-fiction example:

Mark posts a photo of a landscape seared by fire and the desolation of the blackened earth clearly shows great damage to crops and grazing land.

However, what you cannot know is how the federal government amended a land-use policy to provide emergency grazing for the cattle of the property owners who lost forage land, or how the family homestead was saved by the quick work of neighbors, who willingly put themselves in harm’s way to fight the flames (true story).

Words can get balled up into an indecipherable phrase or they can eloquently explain a moment of great significance. A photo, in my mind, sets the mood for the story and can help draw the attention of readers to the subject.

Once in a while, as in the photo of a battered and bloody Marine smoking on the battlefield, an image titled, “The Marlboro Man,” there is no need for words.

Those moments are few and far between, in my book. But then I am a wordsmith and visuals are an accessory.

— RaeLynn Ricarte


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