by Pádraig Hanratty
Although editors primarily work with words, they are often asked to review supporting images. This can lead to problems, however, if editors stray from the brief and make subjective comments about the aesthetic quality of the images. Designers, feeling protective about their artwork, may take offence if they feel their artistic skills are being questioned.
Cross-functional teams foster a spirit of collaborative engagement and shared purpose. At the same time, it is important to be respectful of other people’s areas of expertise. (If you think the designers are being a bit too precious and ‘artistic’, just remember how you would feel if a designer criticised your choice of words.)
Just as editors need to ensure that their text changes don’t undermine the author’s voice, they must be mindful of the designer’s vision when reviewing images. With tact, editors can bring their expertise into the design process without undermining design integrity.
Here are seven questions editors should ask when reviewing images:
• Is the image accurate?
• Is the image relevant?
• Where is the image?
• Is the image appropriate?
• Does the image serve its purpose?
• Is the image caption correct?
• Is the image credit correct?
Is the image accurate?
The first two questions (around accuracy and relevancy) are closely related. An inaccurate image undermines the authority of the text and creates a negative reader experience. For example, an image of King Louis XIII illustrating an article about King Louis XVI isn’t going to enhance anyone’s credibility. If you’re unsure about the accuracy of an image, you should query it. (To see how things can go very wrong with photos, check out the Alternate Photographic Archives, a humorous Facebook group that posts deliberately inaccurate photos.)
Sometimes, inaccuracies can hide in plain sight. For example, in a children’s textbook about numbers, a picture of four candles might be accompanied by a large ‘3’, an error so obvious it can stride by unnoticed. (Fans of British comedy will know, of course, what the image of four candles should be changed to.)
So ask yourself: Does the image accurately reflect the text?
Is the image relevant?
Even if the image is accurate, it may not be relevant. The main purpose of an image is to complement the text by, for example, illustrating a key concept or expanding on an important idea. The image could be a photo, an illustration, or a diagram, such as a process chart or a blueprint.
When used effectively, images deepen the reader’s understanding or enjoyment of the text. However, sometimes the image may cause confusion. Perhaps a detailed diagram is used to expand a peripheral point, thus implicitly elevating the importance of that point. Or maybe the relationship between the image and text isn’t clear. A photo of Jimi Hendrix in an article about 1950s British skiffle groups, for example, is likely to puzzle readers.
Where is the image?
Other inaccuracies can creep in when there are multiple images on a page or screen. Exercise due caution when you see words such as left, right, above, and below referring to images. For example, the text might refer to ‘the image on the right’, but the designer may have put the image on the left side. Or maybe the text refers to ‘the image below’, but the designer has put the relevant image above the text, or maybe there are two images below the text (making the phrase ambiguous).
Is the image appropriate?
Just because an image is relevant and accurate doesn’t mean that it is the right image in all circumstances. As with many other editorial decisions, you need to take your audience into account. Children’s history books are likely to have different images than articles about war crimes in the former Yugoslavia. And even if the subject is the same, the imagery may differ depending on the audience. A science textbook aimed at young schoolchildren will need different images than a peer-reviewed scientific journal.
Photos, in particular, can raise many issues around appropriateness – especially photos of people. The author might use a simple, non-controversial stock image of a person to illustrate an article, but that person might be displaying an inappropriate emotion in that context. For example, you wouldn’t want an article about the 2022 collapse of cryptocurrencies to be accompanied by a photo of people laughing!
What is appropriate for one audience may not be appropriate for another. If the content is targeted at a specific culture, take time to research what images might be considered offensive or unacceptable to the culture. For some audiences, you might want to avoid any religious content in images, whereas other audiences would expect you to treat religious imagery with great respect.
Remember that some symbols and phrases can resonate differently in different contexts. When looking at images of people, watch out for background flags or for symbols and slogans on hats, banners, buildings, or t-shirts. (For example, some Asian temples display swastika symbols, reflecting the swastika’s ancient manji origins.)
Also, pay attention to any hand gestures that people are making, as these may be interpreted differently in some cultures. The thumbs-up gesture, for example, is considered offensive in Greece and Russia. And crossed fingers could get you into trouble in Vietnam.
Be mindful of the cultural norms of your audience. In photos of groups of people, are the people as diverse as the audience would expect? Do the scenarios depict stereotypical or outdated situations? Are there any people in the photo who might make your audience uneasy? (Public figures can fall from grace over time!) Remember, a group photo that might seem innocent to you could raise the ire of your audience if they have different cultural expectations.
Does the image serve its purpose?
Every sentence in the text serves a purpose. Likewise, every image should be there for a reason. Is the image there to break up the visual monotony of endless large blocks of text? Is it to provide an entertaining aside? Or does it aim to illustrate an important instructional point? Whatever its purpose, does it achieve it?
Consider images that illustrate or expand on instructional points. If the image is beautifully composed and realised, but it fails to accurately display the instructional point, then the image needs to be revised. This is where the editor must be diplomatic, pointing out the inaccuracy or vagueness in the image without criticising the aesthetic quality. For example, the designer might have created a wonderfully engaging depiction of a medieval knight in his suit of armour, but if the details are inaccurate, the designer has to revisit the image.
Just as the main idea can get lost if a paragraph is too wordy, an instructional point can be drowned out by visual noise. If the image is too detailed or busy, the reader may not know what to focus on. For example, if the text is talking about an individual, but the photo shows that individual among a group of people, this may cause confusion. In such cases, you may suggest that the photo be cropped to focus on the relevant individual.
Similarly, supporting diagrams or illustrations may be too complex for the instructional point being made. If you’re showing children how to read the time, you don’t need a detailed illustration of the inner workings of a watch.
Remember, ask yourself: Does this image support the text and help the reader?
Is the image caption correct?
The next two questions cover areas (captions and credits) that will be familiar to editors. The aim of a caption is to explain what the image is and how it relates to the text. Editors need to ensure that captions are relevant to the image, are error free and follow a consistent style.
Is the image credit correct?
As Abraham Lincoln once tweeted, ‘Just because you see something on the Internet doesn’t mean that it is accurate, reliable, or freely available.’ This applies to images too. Often, writers assume that because an image can be downloaded from the Internet, it is free to reuse. Using an online image without permission can lead to expensive fines.
Ensure that writers are either using public domain images or free stock images, or their own images, or that they have received permission to use the images. Image owners sometimes stipulate how they want the image to be credited. Be sure to follow these guidelines. Also, apply a consistent style to image credits.
Well-chosen images can add to a reader’s enjoyment of the text and deepen their understanding of the content. The editor is responsible for ensuring that the images support the text and achieve their purpose. If editors have serious concerns about the aesthetic quality of the image, or inconsistent quality across images, they may raise these with the designer. In general, however, they should focus on the content and purpose of the image, rather than visual styles used. By carefully nurturing a collaborative relationship with designers, editors can ensure that the right images are chosen to enhance the reader experience and illuminate the text.
Pádraig Hanratty has been a writer and editor for more than 25 years. In 2005, he founded QUIP Editing Solutions, a freelance writing and editing agency. QUIP has completed a wide variety of projects for clients such as Skillsoft, UCD, Digital Marketing Institute, Dublin City University, Dublin Business School, Highwood Education, Dataflow International, Climate-KIC, and RCSI. Pádraig has self-published three fiction books. He is also a Full Member of AFEPI and on the board of Irish PEN. You can follow his blog at Quips and Chords.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of AFEPI Ireland.
1. Boris Johnson. Wikimedia Commons. 10 Downing Street, Tom Evans. Open
Government Licence 3.
2. Jimi Hendrix. Pixabay. Pixabay Licence.
3. Celtic cross. Pixabay. Pixabay Licence.
4. Laughing couple. Pixabay. Pixabay Licence.
5. Winston Churchill at Yalta. Wikimedia Commons. Army Signal Corps Collection in the US National Archives. Public domain
6. Tom Cruise. Wikimedia Commons. Gage Skidmore. Creative Commons
Attribution – Share Alike 2.0.
7. Abraham Lincoln. Wikimedia Commons. Alexander Gardner. Public domain.