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A picture is worth a thousand words: graphics in news

Posted by: | November 11, 2009 | No Comment |

Graphics play an integral part in the presentation of news, having a hand in every medium outside of news on the radio, though presentation is still important to that medium as well.

Though there are some that simply wish to read line after line of text, more often than not people need some form of graphic to accompany it, whether that graphic be an image, a graph, or some sort of color accompanying the text.  It helps break up the “monotony,” so to speak, of a wall of text and gives the eyes a rest.  Graphics do more than just that, though.

Picture, Thousand Words

Published by The Associated Press, originally photographed by Jeff Widener

Journalists report on the goings-on in the world, distributing information that may otherwise pass the populace by.  A journalist by nature deconstructs what he or she sees and rebuilds it with words, describing it.  This works well enough, but sometimes a picture is needed.  As the famous saying goes, “a picture is worth a thousand words.”  Sometimes the written word just isn’t enough to impact the reader.

For example, the famous picture of the protests at Tiananmen Square facing down the tanks.  Without the picture of the lone man facing down the line of tanks, readers might react differently.  When they see the man, staring at the four tanks in front of him, they realize just what exactly is going on.

Essentially, it falls to this:  pictures, along with words, evoke feelings in people.

Brevity is the soul of wit

Journalists, whether they write for a newspaper, an online article, the radio, or for TV, have limited space to work their craft.  As mentioned earlier, a picture can often take the place of a large amount of words, giving breathing room to the journalist.

For another example, a journalist could be writing about a rally for health care.  He could spend time describing how the crowd was reacting, describing the signs many bore, taking up valuable space that could be used, instead, for reporting on what was spoken about at the rally.  A picture would help immensely here, showing the posters and the crowd, the reactions of the crowd, and so on.

Is this mic on?

But what about radio, you may ask.  Radio news is entirely in audio, not allowing for graphics.  This is true.  Radio, unlike the other mediums, has to rely on sound alone to get across things that a picture would, but it also has an advantage in that it is solely the realm of sound.  While it cannot show its listeners a picture, it can, instead, relay the feelings and sounds of whatever is going on.

Written text often has a “voice,” but that voice can be misinterpreted by the reader.  Radio, as by its very nature, has its own voice that relays exactly what is meant to hear, so there is no room for misinterpretation (well there is, but that’s another debate entirely).  While radio is hampered by being unable to show pictures or graphics to its listeners, at the same time it gains an advantage by being the realm of audio and audio alone.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder

While graphics help the presentation of news, journalists and editors must be careful to not go overboard.  Space is precious, especially for newspapers and television (not so much for the internet, where users can scroll past images, though care should still be used).  Journalists must make a decision about what image is appropriate for an article, whether a graph would help explain something.

“Would a pie chart help readers realize where opinions fall, or would it be better to just not have it at all?”  for example.

Just as the eye grows weary with just walls of text, so too can it grow tired from being overloaded with graphics.

To be continued

Thus far, I’ve touched upon the usage of graphics in news and how it, for the most part, helps it.  In a future blog entry, I will touch upon the history of graphics and presentation in news.  Stay tuned.

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