U.K. editor preaches precise photo captions

Guy Keleny is The Independent’s letters editor. But I know him as paper’s stylebook writer and author of the oft-amusing and always informative Errors and Omission column about grammar and style. It’s The Independent’s version of the old New York Times “greenies.” Perhaps this sounds boring, but Keleny has wit and style to spare.

Peter Wilby wrote about Keleny in The Guardian in 2008, noting some of the column’s pedantic tendencies:

It castigates hanging participles, mixed metaphors, homophones, uses of “disinterested” or “flaunted” when “uninterested” or “flouted” is meant, confusions between titles of life peers and those of hereditary peers’ children, and other traps into which journalists fall. Keleny is the only man I know who understands, or cares, when “may” should be used rather than “might”.

Keleny’s role is to hold the paper to a high standard, and he manages to do it in a way that’s engaging.

I scan the column most weeks, and an item about the need for precision in photo captions caught my eye in the latest edition:

Many years ago, The Times had a reputation for publishing, in a spirit of superb hauteur, captions which did not condescend to tell you anything much about the picture. Maybe it was assumed that people who wanted to gawp at pictures rather than read text were not clever enough to want facts.

Anyway, the story is told that once, beneath a photo with no accompanying story, there appeared the following caption: “A Chinese junk on the Thames at Marlow.” That was it. No explanation of this startling apparition.

The spirit of that Chinese junk seemed to live on in the following caption, published in last week’s Magazine: “An aircraft carrier returning to Portsmouth on 30 July 1982 is met by a flotilla of small boats.”

Get a grip. Which one? We didn’t have that many aircraft carriers. Two took part in the Falklands campaign: Hermes and Invincible. Five minutes spent comparing pictures on Wikipedia will tell you that this one is Hermes.

The bit of Trivia about The Times of London is amusing and seems to suit the Times’ history as a paper for the upper crust. But what stands out is an old school editor like Keleny pointing to Wikipedia as a source.

I have no objections to Wikipedia as a research tool; it’s a good starting point to gather background, and following links in an entry’s footnotes can lead you to useful sources.

In this case, however, I’d prefer to see a journalist confirm the Wikipedia information with a second source, such as this one or this one.

If the message is to be more precise, it makes sense to be specific in the sourcing.

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