The ‘blue shirt’ won. Is that the best we can do?

Published Sept. 27, 2021

By Jim Pumarlo, Newspaper Consultant

Local names and faces are the lifeblood of community newspaper content.

There’s no better way to spotlight your readers than through photos. After all, “a picture is worth a thousand words” – right? I rephrase. A picture can be worth a thousand words.

The most interesting story will go unread if it has a nondescript headline.

The best photos will have little meaning without adequate explanation. Read: Identify the people in photos.

“Nameless” photos always have bothered me. When I sat behind the editor’s desk, photographers and reporters knew better than to submit photos without identification.

The unfortunate practice is becoming more widespread, an observation passed along by Fred Noer of Burlington, Wis., who had a long career working for publications. In some instances, he notes, photos are absent any cutlines.

Identifying individuals satisfies everyone, he correctly notes – “those in the photo, their families and friends who recognize the people photographed, and the publication for having preserved its credibility.”

He adds: “If a reader does not know the people in a photo, how is he or she supposed to find out? The publication is obligated to provide that information – for the readers as well as for the people in the photos.”

His email prompted me to scan some newspapers. Sad to say, the disheartening examples were numerous.

  • A full-page photo spread carried highlights from a prep sports season. The school was recognizable by jerseys, but the players remained anonymous.
  • Mom and dad were identified in a family photo, but their kids were nameless.
  • One individual held a sign, the focal point in a protest. No name.
  • Eight board directors remained faceless as they broke ground for a new initiative.
  • Seventeen individuals were shown in a group photo. The names were listed with no attempt to identify – for example, first row, second row, left to right.
  • Twenty fair photos were splashed across two pages. The closest to any identification was a cutline saying the “blue shirt won” in a competition.

There admittedly are circumstances where it simply isn’t possible to identify subjects in otherwise compelling photos worthy of publication. A photographer captures an accident scene but is kept at bay by law enforcement from getting names.

Privacy rules also can be a challenge. I remember when the local schools started requiring permission slips from parents authorizing photos of their children to be published. That could prove difficult to meet deadlines with spot news, but we usually navigated the process for a feature story and photo.

Noer has taken the time to drop notes to newspapers, expressing his exasperation when people are not identified. He says the editors agree and improve their practices – but then often fall into bad habits. Noer aptly states that photographing people for publication carries a reporting function, too. You should record their names so they are available if photos are used.

Editors, ask yourselves: Would you publish a story identifying someone simply as a woman or man? It pains me that I’ve seen increasing examples of such lazy reporting. I recall one meeting where individuals came to the podium to speak on a contentious issue. The report stated two people spoke and carried extensive quotes – without any attempt, or instinct, to identify them.

Noer states the obvious: “Readers are more likely to share articles and talk about them if the readers know the persons in the photos. And, of course, people are excited to see their names in a publication.”

And don’t forget, a picture, in a sense, can be worth a thousand dollars as newspapers regularly promote photo reprints and galleries. Revenue opportunities certainly are minimized without identities

I remain a booster of community newspapers. You are in the best position to be a living history of your towns. Community newspapers indeed are challenged in a fractured media landscape. You must stay relevant to readers and advertisers. That raises the stakes for adhering to the tenets of sound journalism: Identify individuals in stories and photos alike.

Jim Pumarlo is former editor of the Red Wing (Minn.) Republican Eagle. He writes, speaks and provides training on community newsroom success strategies. He is author of “Journalism Primer: A Guide to Community News Coverage,” “Votes and Quotes: A Guide to Outstanding Election Coverage” and “Bad News and Good Judgment: A Guide to Reporting on Sensitive Issues in Small-Town Newspapers.” He can be reached at and welcomes comments and questions at