Writing a Cutline (Caption) for the News: Three examples of an often overlooked journalism skill

In journalism, the “cutline” is the text below a picture, explaining what the reader is looking at. It’s what most people call a caption, but to a journalist, a “caption” is more like a title that appears above the photo, while the “cutline” is a few lines of text under the photo.

An AP style caption is usually two sentences, with the first answering the question “What, exactly am I looking at?” (with names of the one or two most important people in the photo, the location / event, and date) and the second answering the question “Why is that newsworthy?”  Space is limited; brevity is golden. 

Screen Shot 2014-10-09 at 3.03.36 PM

Here, we see a dry, pointless cutline that offers nothing at all that the reader can’t gather from the picture. Yes, I can see the guy is gesturing. Snooze!

Screen Shot 2014-10-09 at 3.10.30 PMSame picture, different cutline. Here the reader learns something new, though the detail seems a little random.
Screen Shot 2014-10-09 at 3.07.40 PM

A much more effective cutline builds on the photo to draws the reader into the story.

I found these great cutline examples on ibiblio

Update, 10 May 2023
     Links to ibiblio now come up as “403 Forbidden.
     Added link to Janet Walsh’s description of AP photo captions.

2 thoughts on “Writing a Cutline (Caption) for the News: Three examples of an often overlooked journalism skill

  1. …I was taught that without …1. “Grabbing Reader Attention”… you’re writing to the wind~! and …2..without “Building Reader Interest” …you’re writing to the Sea…

    When your writing instructor tried to “anchor your thought” to the concept: 1. Grab Attention… 2. Create Interest… 3. Build Desire… 4. Get A Decision… what was he/she doing?

    At times, life becomes disheveled enough to demand BOLD actions… and to expect BOLD results~!

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