When you use a free tool, you might get what you pay for

A few weeks ago, the Huffington Post posted a fascinating article about our field:


Gets your attention, doesn’t it?

The author — who happens to be the head of communications for Canva, a maker of free online data visualization software — explains why today’s journalists really need, y’know, free online data visualization software. He uses visual aids — presumably created by the software he peddles — to show why we need to reach out to social media…


…what percentage of journalists use various social media…


…and the retention rate of visual information vs. good ol’ prose alone.


There’s just one little problem with all these graphics. And I’m hoping you spotted it right away.

They’re not accurate at all. In fact, they’re laughably incorrect.

Visual journalist John Telford recently blogged about the Huffington Post story, going into great detail about picking it apart each piece.

For example, that bubble chart I just showed you. John writes:

Notice anything wrong with the proportions of the bubbles relative to each other?


The most obvious issues are that the 16% and 14% orange bubbles are way off compared to the 30% gray bubble. However, just about all the proportions for every bubble are off to some degree. Let’s take a look at what the chart would look like if the proportions were correct.


When the scale is off as badly as this, you lose credibility. People are more skeptical today than ever before, and if they catch what could simply be an innocent mistake but they perceive it as an intentional misrepresentation of the facts because you have an agenda to push, you’ve lost them.

Bubble charts have become extremely popular over the last few years, but they’re rarely the best choice to allow for easy comprehension (as is often true for most forms of circular charts). It’s almost always better to use a bar chart as they’re more easily understood and make for easier comparisons between categories.

Bubble charts are so easy to screw up. This is just what we need: A tool to help us screw them up more efficiently than ever before. Sigh.

John also has harsh words for the third example at the top of this post:


John writes:

I’m not even sure what kind of chart it’s supposed to be exactly. However, since the author went to all the trouble to attach the data points to the arrow, it would have been good to use proper proportions to space the data points evenly.

…A much better solution would have been to use the humble bar chart:


Wow! Now there’s an impressive looking statistic displayed in a chart that holds some impact and meaning.

Excellent analysis by John. Read his entire blog post here.


A former artist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, John now runs a freelance infographics and design business based in Florida. Find his web site here.

Deeper in his writeup about bubble charts, John mentions one of my blog posts. In fact, I’ve written about bubble charts time and time and time again.

Deeper in his writeup about bubble charts, John mentions one of my blog posts. In fact, I’ve written about bubble charts time and time and time again.

Several years ago, I took issue with Dipity, a free tool that gave journalists a way of creating illustrated interactive timelines. Poynter had written about that tool in glowing terms. Find that blog post here.

Hey, free tools can be a great way of helping visual journalists make ends meet when you have zero resources and zero budget. But make sure you check back over the results those tools give you — just like you’d check back over anything you write. Don’t assume the developers of these tools know what the hell they’re doing when it comes to content going out via your site, your feed or under your byline.

Headline + photo disconnect generates reaction from angry readers

I did not watch the Ole Miss vs. Auburn game this weekend and I’m very glad I didn’t.

Auburn was leading 35-31 late in the game when Ole Miss receiver Laquon Treadwell pulled in a long pass and dashed toward the end zone. He broke two tackles and then was caught just inches shy of a touchdown by Auburn linebacker Chris Frost. Treadwell coughed up the ball, which bounced across the goal line.

The referees ruled the play a touchdown but then, after a video review, called it a fumble. Auburn wins. But during the official replay review, Ole Miss staffers worked on Treadwell, who was in great pain after Frost had rolled onto his leg.

That injury turned out to be a gruesomely broken leg. A photo of Treadwell, just at the point where his leg snapped, was played huge across the sports front of the Sunday Opelika Auburn News.


My first thought when I saw this: Oh, my God. They’re rubbing in the injury.

My second thought: That can’t possibly be intentional. No newspaper is that stupid.

Turns out, my second thought was correct. The headline was meant to be a reference to the amazing ways Auburn keeps pulling out victories from certain defeat. The problem here is that the headline doesn’t play well with that particular photo.

Now, the photo itself is horrific enough. Granted, that’s the key moment of the game. But…

  • …an easy argument can be made that the picture doesn’t pass “the breakfast test” — that old rule of thumb we used to use decades ago: If you can’t look at it or read it comfortably over your Raisin Bran and orange juice, then don’t put it in the paper.
  • If you do decide you must use that photo, then consider using it smaller or downpage or even inside.
  • If you do decide to use it big on page one… then you sure as hell want to police the area around it. You certainly do not want to run it below that particular headline.

The paper was swamped with angry comments from readers who felt the paper didn’t handle the horrific injury with sensitivity. An unsigned editorial posted on the paper’s web site Sunday night explained the use of the photo and apologized for the unfortunate headline treatment:

The picture, shot during the final minutes of Saturday’s game between Auburn and Ole Miss, shows Treadwell just before he fumbles the football, with his left ankle contorted. Treadwell suffered a season-ending injury on the play. It was a horrific occurrence, though it’s important to remember that it was a legal play. Many fans watching the game on national television certainly turned their heads during the replays.

However, it was also one of the most crucial plays in a contest between two top-five college football teams. The picture is gut-wrenching. It also tells the story. That’s why we chose to run it. As journalists, our primary job is to report what happens – whether by words or photos. Often, what we write or publish is unpleasant. Regarding the photo, this was one of those instances. We did not intend to glorify Treadwell’s injury or offend any reader. To any person hurt by our editorial decision, we apologize.

Our staff has already spent several hours discussing Sunday’s decisions, and we’ll continue to do that in the next few days. If we could redesign Sunday’s 1B again, we would. One thing we would do is use a different headline. We chose “FINDING A WAY” because after the game, numerous players and coaches discussed how the team keeps fighting and finding a way to win difficult games, such as those against Ole Miss, South Carolina and Kansas State.

The headline was not meant to celebrate Treadwell’s injury. No true fan takes pleasure in the injury. It was a terrible ending for one of the best games of the season, regardless of one’s collegiate allegiances. Our newspaper joins fans throughout America in wishing Treadwell a speedy recovery. Our thoughts and prayers are also with his family.

Average daily circulation of the Opelika Auburn News is 14,339

Thanks to Kristin O. Williams for the tip.

3 Australian papers picture wrong teen as a terrorist

On Tuesday, a teenager in the suburbs of Melbourne, Australia — who was reportedly planning a brutal attack on police officers — was shot dead by police.

Today, newspapers reported the teen was either inspired by or affiliated with the Islamic State — better known here as ISIS or ISIL. Newspapers crawled the young man’s social media accounts for pictures of him for today’s front pages.


The problem with that, of course: You have to make sure your picture is of the right guy.

That didn’t happen for three Fairfax Media papers in Australia today, including the Sydney Morning Herald


…or The Age of Melbourne.


A third paper that reportedly ran that same photo: The Canberra Times. I can’t seem to find a copy of that front page.

Andrew Rule and Ashley Argoon of the Herald Sun report today:

Abu Bakar Alam, 19, said he was afraid to leave his home and was “not really OK” after being wrongly pictured on the front pages of The Age and Sydney Morning Herald in their coverage of the Endeavour Hills police shooting.

His grandfather was a heroic Afghan Australian killed by a terrorist suicide bomber.

Fairfax Media posted an apology today:

One of the photographs run on this website, tablet and Fairfax papers in relation to the death of Numan Haider was published in error. The young man in a suit was not  Mr Haider, and we unreservedly apologise to him for the error.

The young man has no connection whatsoever with any extremist or terrorist group and we deeply regret any such inference arising from  the publication of the photograph. The picture has been withdrawn from circulation.

From the Herald Sun story, again:

The Age editor-in-chief Andrew Holden said Fairfax Media had spoken with the family and explained the error was caused by “crossed wires”.

“There will be a review into the way we verify photos downloaded from Facebook,” he said.

As you might expect, lawyers are involved. Business Insider‘s Simon Thomsen reports:

While Fairfax Media is trying to make amends, the mistake is still likely to prove costly, with one defamation expert telling Business Insider that the young man is likely to receive tens of thousands of dollars in compensation.

‘Let’s give the terrorists just what they want’

“Hey, I’ve got an idea: Let’s give the terrorists just what they want!”

As far as I can tell, that was the thinking last night at the two major New York City tabloids.

Just in case you haven’t seen them yet, here are the front pages of today’s editions of the New York Post and the Daily News.


I post those with a bit of reluctantance. And only because it’s awfully hard to talk about them in a visuals blog, y’know, without the visual.

I’m not the only one having a strong reaction to this today. Both YouTube and Twitter were removing images and videos of the beheading of freelance journalist James Foley by the Islamic State. At one point yesterday, Twitter even blocked the account of Zaid Benjamin, the Washington correspondent for Radio Zawa. Foreign Policy‘s Shane Harris writes:

After his account was reinstated, Benjamin reported that he lost 30,000 followers during the time he was blocked from the social media site. Benjamin told Foreign Policy that he received no explanation from Twitter for his suspension. A spokesperson for the company, when asked, didn’t provide one.

Even Mediaite wouldn’t post the NY Post cover. Mediaite’s Evan McMurry writes:

In the meantime, let’s return to simpler days, like yesterday, when all the Post was doing was telling women to suck it up and accept their objectification like slaves.

I would argue putting these images on page one breaches most of what I’ve read and learned about visual journalism ethics. But then again, I don’t think most of what I’ve read about visual journalism ethics applies to NYC tabloids.

I would argue very strongly against using either of these images in a newspaper, magazine or web site aimed at a general audience. And especially not on page one.

Still, please take note this happened today. If you’ve never discussed the use of shocking images on page one, today might be a good day for it.

Those images are from the Newseum, of course. Which, by the way, named both pages to its daily Top 10 list.

Cute idea… but haven’t we seen this before?

That’s a wicked-funny cover illustration today on the front of the Daily Telegraph of Sydney, Australia.


That’s Clive Palmer — businessman, politician and head of the Palmer United Party (guess who it’s named for). His actions caused headaches in the Australian Parliament Thursday and unraveled what was reportedly a popular deal to reduce a carbon tax.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few months, you’re familiar with Miley Cyrus and the video for her hit song, Wrecking Ball. A note in the bottom right of the page alerts readers that this is a “digitally altered image.”

The cover is a scream. There’s just one little problem with it: It’s been done before — in the neighboring country of New Zealand.


The page on the left is by Auckland, New Zealand Herald editorial cartoonist, Rod Emmerson, for a story on his own country’s politics back in May. Read more about it here.

In fact, this is the third illustration I’ve seen using a Miley Cyrus Wrecking Ball motif. The second was about a certain newspaper publisher here in California. You’ll forgive me if I decline to post a copy of it here.

Read more about Clive Palmer and the Daily Telegraph illustration here.

If it LOOKS like a sticker ad but is NOT a sticker ad, is it still just as obnoxious?

You’ve seen those lovely sticker ads, of course.

But have you seen fake sticker ads? They are designed to look like sticker ads, but they’re actually printed directly on the page.


That ran yesterday afront the Herald of Ottawa, Kansas, circulation 3,891.

I’m sure these have been out there a while — this is, in fact, the second one I’ve ever seen. The first was last August on page one of the Saratogian of Saratoga Springs, N.Y.


Average daily circulation for the Saratogian is 6,812.

Thanks to my anonymous tipster for the photo.

For your consideration…

In case you didn’t see this yesterday, check out the ad stripped across the bottom of the front page of yesterday’s Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel.


It was a mistake, said Howard Greenberg, publisher of the Sun Sentinel. He told Jim Romenesko:

The ad was supposed to be in sports, where it normally runs. Erectile dysfunction is not a new revenue source for us [on page one]. It was an honest, embarrassing mistake.

Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon asked Greenberg what kind of reaction he got from readers, Greenberg responded:

I have gotten zero.

Mistake or not; reader reaction or not: Folks were quick to jump all over it yesterday. Alt-weekly Broward/Palm Beach New Times wrote:

Sun Sentinel, a Pulitzer Prize-winning daily newspaper, wants to give you wood.

…Now, first and foremost, YES, this is the pot calling the kettle black. You flip through New Times, you’ll find ad for just about every strip club and transsexual Asian massage service in town. But at least we keep that stuff in the back of the paper.

Tina Nguyen of Mediaite wrote:

Look, we get it: When your front page is covered in depressing news, like school budget cuts and the kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls, you need something, um… uplifting. Something to raise spirits and excite readers. So it makes sense for news outlets to keep pumping resources, no matter how dirty and filthy, into their rock-hard journalism, in order for reporters to continue penetrating into the darkest corners of society, relentlessly hammering away at corruption and crime, eventually building up facts and narrative and exploding groundbreaking reporting all over the faces of their readers.

And then there was this smart-ass comment, via Facebook:


I couldn’t wait to see what kind of ad the Sun Sentinel put in that spot today. It turned out to be a jewelry store.


If the jeweler had a sense of humor, it might have been fun to duplicate the ad from the previous day with similar colors, typography and that same sultry woman asking: I’m ready for some diamonds. Are you ready to buy me some?

Those front page images are from the Newseum, of course. Which, thankfully, did not name the Sun Sentinel to its daily Top Ten on Wednesday.

One of the most horrifying cover images I’ve ever seen

A 28-year-old pregnant woman unable to pay for care was refused admission last week into a hospital in Oaxaca, Mexico — about 200 miles southeast of Mexico City — so she gave birth instead in a courtyard at the hospital.

Incredibly, someone was there with a camera. So a picture of this wound up on the front page of this week’s La Razón de México, a nationally-distributed weekly tabloid.

We need to continue discussing the use of alarming or possibly offensive images on page one, so I feel duty-bound to report all this to you. Yet, I just can’t bring myself to post what I consider to be one of the most extreme examples of this I’ve ever seen.

Here’s an edited version:


The headline says, roughly…

Hospital in Oaxaca forces an indigent woman to give birth in the grass

…so you can probably visualize what the unedited version looks like.

If you must see it, click here. But you’ve been warned.

The picture itself is credited to Eloy Pacheco of Voz 21.

A young journalist in Mexico City tipped me off about this story Sunday night and asked me what I thought. I had to admit: I am horrified. Terrified. Disgusted. The picture makes me feel ill. I’m moved to tears.

But it’s also an image that I’ll never be able to scrape from my brain. If you’re in the business of reporting this story — or in the business of advocating for better health care in Oaxaca — then, that might be just what you want. At the very least, a lot of people were talking about this Sunday.

The journalist told me the cover — published Sunday, evidently — made the rounds this weekend on Twitter and was hotly debated throughout Mexico.

Here’s the online version of the story from La Razón. I ran it through Google Translate. Here are some talking points, as best I can tell:

  • All this happened last Wednesday, Oct. 2.
  • This is the second time in three months this same thing has happened at this same hospital.
  • The problem at the hospital reportedly has to do with labor issues — pause for the sound of sad, bitter ironic laughter — strikes that have left the hospital short-staffed. These strikes started in July and are still going on.
  • The hospital declined to treat the woman but she and her husband “remained in place walking the halls of the Health Center waiting for the shift change or a doctor or nurse to help , but no one did.”
  • The woman’s screams brought work in the hospital to a standstill. At that point, a nurse came to her rescue.
  • “The baby was reviewed and determined to be a ‘healthy male’ two kilos 400 grams” — or, about 5 lbs, 5 oz. So, at least, there’s somewhat of a happy ending.
  • The incident is under investigation.

It’s one hell of a story. And it’s one horrifying cover.

The questions that still trouble me…

  1. Am I right to feel repulsed by this image?
  2. By feeling that way, am I imposing my American values on a Mexican newspaper?
  3. Would Mexican readers feel any differently about this image? Most of the tweets I spot-checked via Google Translate last night were fairly negative. But, as you know, Twitter doesn’t necessarily give one a fair cross-section of public opinion.
  4. I was immediately concerned for the mother and her own family and how they might feel about the picture. Did the newspaper have their permission to use the image? Does it matter?
  5. And, naturally, I’m filled with anger toward the hospital for what I see here. Is that fair? And is it significant that I worked my way through three or four other emotions before I managed to feel some indignation for how this woman was treated by the Centro de Salud de San Felipe Jalapa de Díaz?

I’m eager to hear your thoughts on these points or any other. We still have moderation turned on for our comments, but I’ll try to get them approved as quickly as I can today.

An update on that controversial Nairobi newspaper Sunday front page…

I wrote extensively Sunday about the front page of Nairobi’s largest newspaper, the Nation.

Readers were horrified about the choice and use of the photo on page one. The editorial director has been suspended and the CEO of the company issued an apology.


Late last night, Justin Best — formerly, a photo editor with the Everett (Wash.) Herald and currently with Microsoft — wrote:

Hi Charles, I saw your post on the mall shooting and noticed another problem with the Nation front page. Ugh.

Justin sent along a screencap of the photo as sent out by Reuters.


Yep: They flopped it. In order to make it work better with the layout. Justin adds:

And that is more frustrating than not possibly understanding the sensitivity of the picture and your audience.

Journalists need to stop altering reality.

In addition, check out the short piece in the tint box at the bottom of today’s front page:


It’s hard to read it at this low resolution, but that’s an apology for Sunday’s front-page photo. I can’t find the text of that story on the paper’s web site.


Yet another tacky-as-hell ad tagged to something in the news

You marveled over Tumbledown Trails Golf Course in Verona, Wis., that offered the tasteless deal: Nine holes of golf for only $9.11 on 9/11.

But did you see the solicitation that dating site OKCupid sent out via email to folks in the Boulder area, where they’ve had catastrophic flooding the past few days?


Not smart.

That was posted yesterday at Failbook. Also, Mother Jones has written about this.

D.C. shooting non-photo used on the cover of two UK newspapers

The Atlantic Wire published an article Tuesday telling the story behind this “citizen journalist” photo from the D.C. shootings this week that turned out to not actually be related to the shootings.


Eric Levenson writes:

There were actually two photos posted to Twitter [Monday] that depicted a man on the ground surrounded by medical personnel in the area near the Washington Navy Yard. Because of the location and timing of the incident, most people, including the person who took them, assumed it was related to the nearby shooting. [Tuesday], both a spokesman for the Associated Press and the tweeter of those images, Tim Hogan, told The Atlantic Wire that the man on the ground was, in fact, unrelated to the shooting. Both expressed remorse at the actions that led to the error being picked up and spread by so many media outlets and Internet users.

Levenson goes on to explain how the pictures were first taken and tweeted by Hogan — a Congressional aide — and how they were picked up by the media. Hogan had urged caution with the photos, admitting he didn’t know the exact circumstances surrounding the man on the ground. But, as Levenson writes, those subsequent tweets didn’t get near as much traction as did the photos themselves.

Levenson notes:

The CVS pharmacy in the background of the photo is a few blocks away from Building 197, where the shooting took place — 0.4 miles to be exact, according to Google Maps. How did a gunshot victim end up there?

The Associated Press distributed the photo at 11:22 a.m. EDT.

At 1:05 p.m., the AP issued a new disclaimer with the photo. “Please be advised that the Associated Press is further investigating the details in these photos … We are working to determine the circumstances surrounding the person’s collapse,” the message read.

It didn’t pull the image until 5:53 p.m. EDT, nearly five hours later.

ELIMINATION US Shooting Military Building

By that time, sadly, it was too late for folks on the other side of the Atlantic. The picture was lead art for the Independent of London…


…as well as the Independent‘s youth-oriented tab, i.


Although one could easily argue that the Independent papers should have seen the 1:05 p.m. EDT warning the AP sent out and simply not used these pictures for the cover. Even at that relatively early point in the story, there were plenty to choose from.

Find the Atlantic Wire‘s report here.

UPDATE – 1:26 P.M. EDT

A colleague points out that (at least) five U.S. papers used this picture on page one today, including a number of GateHouse papers.

Important: ‘File art’ is NOT the same thing as ‘stock art’

If there’s one thing that cheeses me off these days, it’s the proliferation of bubble charts in which information is rendered unreadable. Especially when a bar chart would make the data so much easier to decipher.

If there are two things that cheese me off, however, the second would be ethical lapses in the use of photos. By news agencies that really ought to know better.

This week’s case in point: CNN.

Surely you saw the story about the 100-lb. snake that escaped from its cage at a pet shop in Campbellton, Canada, crawled through a ventilation shaft into an upstairs apartment and strangled two young boys as they slept.

Tommy Christopher of Mediaite reports:

It’s an incredibly sad story, but in covering it, CNN couldn’t help but sensationalize it. CNN Around The World anchor Suzanne Malveaux began the report with the absurd observation that “It happened less than a hundred miles from the U.S. border,” as if we need to start building a snake fence, and in a telephone interview with famous Columbus Zoo director emeritus Jack Hanna, speculated about what might have happened.

…During their interview with Hanna, though, CNN played a slideshow of stock images, one of which could seem, to the average viewer, like a chilling photo of the two victims holding a python.


Except, of course, those are not the victims and that is not the snake in question. That is a file photo from Getty Images of a father, two sons and pet python in Acre, Israel, last year.

Here’s the video itself, should you want to see it:

Using file art like this is not only in poor taste — really, really poor taste — it’s also downright stupid.

Here’s a similar example from my visual ethics slideshow

In 2005, Harper’s magazine published a story on soldiers who go AWOL. Suitable photography for a story like that, however, is difficult to come by. And apparently the magazine is too lazy — or too cheap — to commission an illustration. So they picked up a Getty image showing Marine recruits at boot camp in Parris Island, S.C., faded one guy out as if he were disappearing and let it rip on the cover.


A decision Harper’s came to regret when some of the young men in the photo found out how their pictures had been used.

The St. Pete Times reported at the time:

“We are decorating pages,” said Giulia Melucci, the magazine’s vice president for public relations. “We are not saying the soldiers are AWOL. Our covers are not necessarily representative.”

A media observer said using real people as “decorations” for a story about deserters might go too far.

“Going AWOL is not a favorable or positive thing,” said Kenny Irby, visual journalism group leader at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, which owns the St. Petersburg Times.

And, of course, Getty wasn’t too damned happy about it, either.

So our takeaways from this little episode…

1) Don’t decorate stories. Feel free to illustrate stories. But don’t decorate them.

2) If you don’t know the difference, then don’t do either. Hire a professional.

3) File art can be used for certain types of stories. But it’s not the same as stock art. Stock art is a completely different type of thing.

4) If you don’t know the difference, then hire a professional.

5) Be extra careful when illustrating a story in which two little boys are killed.

6) Better yet, don’t even try to illustrate a story like that. Sometimes, you just gotta go with only text — or, in the case of TV, just a talking head. This was one of those times.

7) Someone at CNN needs a good, sharp smack on the side of their head. I mean, really.

Find the Mediaite story here.

Read more about Photoshop ethics here and here and here.

Find my Visual Ethics powerpoint slideshow here.

Embarrass art directors who use too much Photoshop? There’s an app for that.

This new video campaign from Canada has been making the rounds. Take a moment and check it out — especially if you’ve spent any time as a features or magazine art director.

Fast Company‘s Joe Berkowitz reports:

Dove Canada’s latest endeavor is a sneaky way to hit the perpetrators of such ads right at the source–their computers.

The team at Ogilvy created the Photoshop action “Beautify”, a downloadable file that makes a change with a single click, in this case aimed at photography creatives who might be shaving the curves off of a not-even-curvy model right this very second. The company hopes to spread “Beautify” by leaving it on sites like Reddit which art directors and the like are known to frequent–presenting it as an aid for retouching.

The idea is that art directors — always hot-to-trot for free tools, plug-ins and whatnot, will download the “beautify” filter and then apply it to a heavily-photoshopped photo of a woman. Instead of doing what it’s advertised to do, the file undoes all the photoshopping, with the intent of shaming the art director.

If this sounds a lot like a trojan horse virus, then you’re right on track. Except the non-“beautify” itself isn’t permanent. The user can then undo the undo.

Personally, I wonder how many art directors out there really download and install Photoshop filters that they know nothing about. I also wonder how effective it is to hold art directors themselves responsible for ongoing Photoshop abuse in the magazine world. They’re only doing what their publishers hired them to do. Show me an art director who suddenly refuses to over-retouch a photo and I’ll show you an art director who’ll be replaced before lunchtime.

So I suspect Dove doesn’t really expect to “catch” anyone red-handed with this faux app. I suspect this is just a publicity stunt. Given all the shares I saw for it last night — and the fact that we’re talking about it right now — it’s a pretty effective one.

Meanwhile, Dove’s U.S. arm also pushes the company’s “natural beauty” theme. This ad — first posted in the spring — may bring tears to your eyes.

Interesting stuff. Thanks to the several folks who posted and tweeted about this last night.

Separated at birth?

Matt Memrick of Charlotte, N.C., is quite right:


On the left: Texas Monthly‘s June cover on the 50 best barbecue joints in the world. On the right: The cover of this past Sunday’s Parade magazine.


Wow. These are awfully similar.

On one hand, shooting a picture of a big plate of food — whether it’s for a magazine cover of just for your Instagram feed — isn’t exactly an original idea. And, yeah, barbecue joints in Texas tend to pile your plate high. Which makes for a rather obvious cover idea.

So it’s quite possible these two concepts were developed independently of each other. The editors of Parade explain that they…

…asked Franklin pitmaster Aaron Franklin to put together a tray of the offerings available at his restaurant that day, he presented us with this beautiful display—and we shot it as he presented it. We didn’t have a food stylist or a prop stylist on the shoot.

The similarity to a recent Texas Monthly cover is purely coincidental. But we at Parade are humbled that our cover does bear an unintentional resemblance to the cover of one of our country’s finest magazines. And next time a Parade staffer is in Austin, the barbecue is on us.

Which seems kind enough.

But noted barbecue blogger Daniel Vaughn of TMBBQ, however, writes that Parade‘s story relied quite a bit on the work of Dallas Morning News food critic Leslie Brenner. Who not only borrowed liberally from Daniel’s work for a story three years ago, but also when Daniel reached out to her about it, she responded in a condescending way. The idea being: Daniel’s just a blogger, so he doesn’t really know how journalism works.

Which, in turn, led to an embarrassing writeup by Jim Romenesko.

Daniel points out that the Texas Monthly cover was even recognized at “cover of the day” by the Society of Publication Designers.

Hey, I can sympathize. I wrote last week about the challenges I run into sometimes with this very blog: I don’t blog on company time, so there are hours every day in which I put a lid on my work. Also, I’m now on the west coast. I dislike blogging — and tweeting my blog posts — when everyone back East is asleep. Therefore, my new “schedule” is to post my items in the mornings. Which is around noon back east.

(The exception being on my days off. Today happens to be one.)

As a result, I’ll write an item in the evening after work, stash it away overnight and then post it first thing in the morning… only to find the aforementioned Jim Romenesko beat me to it by a number of hours.

So does that mean I don’t post? Does that mean I need to check Jim’s blog (and Poynter’s MediaNews blog and Mediaite and iMedia Ethics and all the other) before I post an item?

No. I post. And if I aggregate something — which I do quite frequently — I make sure I cite my source and dish out links. That’s the way it works here in “the blogosphere.”

I’m not sure it’s reasonable to expect two independently-produced stories on barbecue to not have similar imagery. This example strikes me as a coincidence.

But sure, we’ve seen examples of pages that were so similar — even the typography was spot-on — that clearly a designer was looking at the previously published page. Like this one here.


But was this one a visual ripoff?

110111VirginianPilotAwBurnedFront   110111PortlandOregonianFront

I’m not so sure. Frankly, I think that one might have been the result of the same pun headline, conceived 3,000 miles away.

And then there was this one. Which I’m still not sure about.

Finally, to answer Matt’s question: Yes. Those plates of barbecue did make me hungry.

Have some fun on your pages. When it’s not appropriate, though: Don’t.

You remember USA Today‘s cute little logo doodles, right?


They’re still at it on their section fronts. Not every day, perhaps. But frequently enough to still have some fun with their year-old format.

Take Wednesday’s business front, for example: USA Today turned its dot logo into a train car.


There’s just one little problem with this: The downpage story this art referred to was — using the paper’s own description — a “disaster” story:


A blog reader who wished to remain anonymous called this…

… a cartoonish rendition of a somewhat animated-looking oil tank car, offered up to fill a circular doodad spot, yet up in Quebec they’re still searching for the burned remains of about 35 more people. I think it shows remarkably poor visual judgment.

I’d agree. Every bit as poor as the decision to use this pun headline on a plane crash story in the Chicago Sun-Times last weekend.

For the record, here’s the entire Wednesday business front.


My correspondent elaborates about USA Today’s logo doodles:

I sometimes (not as often as you might assume) find them off-putting, or contrived. Or, like this one, ill-advised. I mean, it looks like something from a Thomas the Train set or something. Or like a green Minion from Despicable Me, flopped on its side and without eyes. Thing is, why not simply draw a realistic silhouette of a tank car and set it inside the green dot?

I think part of the point they’re trying to make is by angling the tank car toward the reader, sort of like it’s getting ready to roll down the grade at you. Which, if that is indeed part of why they drew it that way, shows even worse judgment in my opinion: “Watch out, here comes a USAT green dot oil tank car, rolling toward your town, readers!

My larger background point being, when they adopted that “illustrate the dots” infrastructure, they set themselves up to occasionally reach for a visual that is simply really, really inappropriate.

The logo doodles are fun. But, like pun headlines, there’s a time to have some fun and a time not to have fun. This might have been the latter.

Previous blog coverage of last fall’s redesign of USA Today:

  • Sept. 6: USA Today reportedly to launch a redesign next week
  • Sept. 13: Is this USA Today’s new logo?
  • Sept. 13: A closer look at the hints we’ve seen of the new USA Today redesign
  • Sept. 14: My epic search for a new-and-improved USA Today
  • Sept. 17: A (somewhat belated) in-depth look at the new USA Today
  • Sept. 17: My thoughts about Monday’s edition of USA Today
  • Sept. 19: Stephen Colbert‘s take on the USA Today redesign
  • Sept. 19: A critique of Wednesday’s USA Today: Day Four of the redesign
  • Sept. 20: USA Today responds to Stephen Colbert’s logo challenge
  • Oct. 16: Has USA Today run out of ‘blue ball’ logo ideas already?
  • Oct. 21: Logo designers of the world: You’re not doing it right
  • Oct. 29: USA Today tweaks body copy font

When pun headlines go bad

At first glance, this might seem like a pun headline on a breaking news near-disaster story.

All but two lived in this frightful plane crash. It was a fright, right?


Unless you’re Asian, that is. In which case you’re well aware of all the uncool jokes about Asians not being able to pronounce the letter “l.” And you also consider this flight originated in China and it passengers were mostly Chinese and Korean.

In that case, this seems like a racist pun headline.

Bobby Calvan of the reports for the Asian American Journalists Association:

In a brief telephone conversation on Sunday, Sun-Times Publisher and Editor-in-Chief Jim Kirk said it didn’t dawn on his editors that the play on words could be construed as offensive.

“There was nothing intentional on our part to play off any stereotypes. … If anybody was offended by that, we are sorry,” Kirk added.

“We were trying to convey the obviously frightening situation of that landing,” Kirk said.

We’ve seen truly awful, racist pun headlines before. Like this one from ESPN, for example, during the Jeremy Lin craze last year:


And I remember only too well a headline the Chicago Tribune used on the front page of sports the day after Tiger Woods won the Masters golf tournament. Instead of Da Man!, someone got cute and wrote Da Master! to tie in with the name of the tournament. Completely forgetting about that whole slavery-and-Civil War thing. I can’t say I would have caught it had I seen the headline before it published. But we sure knew about it once the phones started ringing the next day. Yikes.

Hey, I’m the first to succumb to the temptation to use a pun headline. But these days, I mostly work on backgrounders and featurized treatments. It’s always tricky using a pun on a news story in which lives were lost. I’d say that was the Sun-Times‘ first mistake.

And secondly: Yeah. You have to watch for all the possible meanings of a pun headline. The more people who see a headline like this, the better. As Calvan writes later in his story:

If the Sun-Times’ copy desk is like many others in newsrooms across the nation, it probably lacked the diversity of voices on staff that might have questioned the appropriateness of the headline.

That Sunday Sun-Times front page is from the Newseum. Of course.

How do you handle ‘found art’ from social media on page one?

So, here’s your dilemma: There’s a five-car pileup on the interstate. Lots of flames and smoke. Two die.

You scramble your shooters to the scene. They come back with some impressive aftermath shots, but not that one dynamite picture. There is a dynamite picture being passed around social media, but there’s no way to track down who made the original picture.

What do you do?

My friends at the Times of Roanoke, Va., decided to use the photo anyway on Thursday’s front page, but with a disclaimer.

Click for a larger view:


Isn’t that a spectacular photo? Here’s the cutline that ran beneath it:

Two tractor-trailers were involved in Wednesday’s crash near the Valley View Boulevard exit on Interstate 581. This photo was shared on social media, but the name of the photographer is unknown.

The managing editor of the Roanoke Times is Michael Stowe. He and I went through leadership training together at the Poynter Institute, 12 years ago.


Michael tells us:

We had a lot of conversations among editors about whether to use the photo and how to credit it.

As we indicated in the cutline, we first saw the photo on social media (Twitter). We had several editors looking for photos from the accident on Twitter and then reaching out to find out who shot the photos so we could ask for permission to publish.

In the case of this photo, we did get a response from the person who had tweeted the photo. She told us she had not taken the photo but that it was sent to her “from a friend” – and that he told her we could use it. But she declined to give us his name or put us in touch with him. Without that information, we were in the dark about the original source of the photo and a bit skeptical if her friend had taken the photo or gotten it from someone else. We spent some time on Twitter trying to find if it had been Tweeted earlier by someone else but could not locate it.

I made the decision to use the photo (first on Roanoke.com and in print the next morning) because it was the strongest image we had to convey the intensity and horror of that crash scene. We were confident in the authenticity of the image – that it was actually taken minutes after the crash – but we needed to figure out how to credit it. We talked about using a normal photo credit – small type below the image but above the cutline – and calling it “user submitted” (several TV stations took that route with similar photos). But since it wasn’t actually submitted to us directly, Carole [Tarrant, editor of the Times] and I talked and decided it would be more transparent to present as we did. As you can see, there’s not a photo credit where we normally have one but we included a brief explainer in the cutline.

We have not heard from anyone claiming credit for the photo. I expected someone might step forward to say it was her/his photo and we were prepared to give her/him credit (maybe even a blog post or short story about the experience) and pay our going rate for such a photo.

Did Michael and Carole make the right choice? Perhaps. What I especially like about this is that the decision was well-thought out. This wasn’t a knee-jerk what the hell, let’s go for it kind of thing.

But this sort of thing is only going to happen more and more often. So it’s probably good that we all read this and discuss it in our newsrooms. Better now than on deadline, y’know?

Find the stories about the accident here and here. That front page is from the Newseum, of course.

Average daily circulation for the Roanoke Times is 78,663.

Ethics? What ethics? State-of-the-art photo retouching tips from 1946

The find of the day: An instruction manual on how to retouch photos for publication, published in 1946.


The PetaPixel blog posted a number of pages from this book, Shortcuts to Photo Retouching For Commercial Use, by Raymond Wardell. PetaPixel’s Michael Zhang writes:

Think of it as a “Photoshop 101″ book for photographers who came more than half a century before us.

Among the examples Michael posts is this horrifying one entitled “Order from chaos.”


That might be good for advertising use. But we visual journalists can only cringe.

Thanks to Alan Stamm for the tip.

This sort of thing has been around forever, of course. The more extensive your newspaper’s library of vintage photos, the more likely you are to have come across some of them. Five years ago, the L.A. TimesLarry Harnish posted this picture of Dodgers announcers Jerry Doggett and Vin Scully from the Sept. 2, 1958, edition of the Times.


But look at Scully’s right arm. It’s in front of Doggett. But Scully is seated on the other side of him. Clearly, something fishy is going on.

Sure enough, here’s the entire picture as it appears in the LAT files.


That’s quite a bit of airbrushing and old-school cut-and-paste going on. Larry wrote:

As Gary Metzker would say: “They are out of control.” When I showed this to Davan Maharaj, he called it “X-acto Shop.” Anybody who did this today would be out on their ear.

Yet, people tend to think of “Photoshopping” as a recent thing. Not only is it not recent, it’s only within our lifetimes this sort of thing has become frowned upon.

One more quick example: This famous picture from the Kent State incident in May 1970. You’ve all seen it, of course.


But that image has been manipulated. In the original frame, a fence post appears to grow out of the woman’s head.


Unfortunate. But you have to keep that fence post there. We don’t manipulate documentary news photographs. At least, we don’t manipulate them now.

Yet, it’s the manipulated version of that photo that you typically see reprinted.

And even this picture — arguably one of the most famous photographs taken in human history…

…is, in fact, manipulated. Turns out, Neil Armstrong takes pictures about as well as my wife does. In the original, he clipped off the top of Buzz Aldrin‘s head. Here’s the full frame of Neil’s shot.

Yet, journalists continue to use the manipulated version of that photo. I’m not quite sure why. I’ve been sounding the alarm on this for years (find the most recent example of that here).

Some of you have seen plenty of examples like this in my Visual Ethics slideshow. If you’ve not seen it, feel free to download the Powerpoint presentation here.

A little TOO close

I understand the concept of finding a page and then re-using the idea. I really do. I think nearly all of us have done that at some point.

But when you use someone else’s idea, please try to vary it just a bit more than this:


On the left is the Huntsville Times from April 8, 2010, designed by the design director at the time, Paul Wallen.

On the right is Monday’s Gaston Gazette of Gastonia, N.C.

No, I didn’t contact my friends in Gastonia for comment. I just didn’t have the heart to. But I can’t let this pass without pointing it out.

Find good, clever pages. Use them for inspiration. Take an idea and put your own spin on it. Localize it. Customize it. Make it look and feel like your work and your paper.

But don’t just flat-out rip off an idea for a design.

Here’s the litmus test: If you’re going to be embarrassed to find it here in the blog, then don’t do it.

Thanks for reading.