Instagram storytelling works best with enticing narrative

Disclaimer: I have been researching how to do a better job of writing captions that are story oriented and yet still journalistic. This is some of the research I have done. If you were to grade my caption writing at the moment I think at best it is just a passing grade. I hope what I have found helps not just you but me in the future to write better captions.

If you are to Google how to write a caption you will find very similar guidelines often based on the Associated Press model.

This is straight from my guidelines that I got from Mark E. Johnson for teaching Intro to Photojournalism.

Good captions have five basic elements


The first sentence needs to have the first four items in it – who, what, where and when. The second sentence is used to explain why this photo is important to the viewer. Quotes can be used in the second sentence or in a third if it helps advance understanding of the image.

All captions are written in AP style – names, titles, dates, locations, etc – and in the present tense.

The standard comments on length are often like this:

Keep it brief: You do not need to summarize the entire story in the caption; it should supplement or complement the story. If the caption is as deep as the photo, it’s too long! Please keep captions to a couple lines.

When you have just a photo and a caption that is not part of a story, then the caption must do more. It need to tell the story.

Monetization is what is driving many of the changes in journalism today. One of the topics discussed more and more is your engagement score when it comes to analytics which helps you know if the audience is reading your stories.

As you can see from this chart Instagram accounts for the highest number of actions by far of the 4 networks measured, but the lowest number of posts. Instagram’s higher engagement rates are in part, due to high use of visuals and limited, user-friendly response icons.

What this means is that right now the best way to tell stories to an audience is actually through Instagram.

If you are a News Outlet and wanting to leverage the Social Media according to THE ASSOCIATION OF MAGAZINE MEDIA only Instagram will work.

So if you are working really hard on a story and want the most eyes on it, then Instagram is one of the best mediums today.

I must be very honest and say that I was blown away by Brandon Stanton’s Humans of NY Instagram feed when it came to how many followers he has acquired.

By the way Brandon started by posting to Facebook and still does. He has 18 million followers on Facebook.

Here is a video of Brandon Stanton where he shares what he does to get stories of random people on the streets of NY and now the world. I am sharing this because many of the students I teach read my blog and I am all about teaching people how to do storytelling. I think this is great just for learning how to meet people, take their photo, and find their story.

Stanton now has 8.2 million followers. This is a crazy number for sure. Stanton’s website has 18 million followers. Be sure and see how Stanton writes his captions today.

To give you some context his numbers are DOUBLE that of the New York Times. So Brandon Stanton is actually bigger in followers than the NYTimes. The New York Times has long been regarded within the industry as a national “newspaper of record”. So having a bigger following that them is huge. This is why I wanted to study what he does and how I too can engage my audience better.

Brandon was doing this all through the caption.

I wanted to know how to write engaging journalistic captions that tell stories with my photos going forward.

Good Instagram captions come in all shapes and sizes, from short and sweet to longer, in-depth stories (Instagram captions can be as long as 2200 characters). Which is enough to tell a short story with a photo.

The idea here is you can also add more photos to this post, but you are still limited to 2200 characters.

Here are some tips I have come across in many places, so I think they are now common knowledge to many.

I think the general rule in social media is to use the inverted pyramid of writing style.

Another way to start as well in social media is  the “anecdotal lead”, which begins the story with an eye-catching tale or anecdote rather than the central facts.

When I teach how to create a multimedia piece [which is video] for social media we teach that the first 4 to 8 seconds you need to hook the audience. We often used something so different for those 4 to 8 seconds as a tease and would go to black to then start the story.

You can still be journalistic in your writing, but you need to engage the reader with something that will keep them reading. I really think you are writing in a more entertaining style but do not go so far as to lose the journalistic credibility.

One thing that is quite different with Instagram is that readers can comment, as long as you have that turned on for your posts. This has created something new for those writing captions. The call to action.

The simple act of including a call-to-action in your Instagram caption and inviting your audience to comment or engage can go a very long way it when it comes to driving more engagement on your posts.

The idea is that you are creating a following. This is very similar to getting subscribers.

You should also consider turning your call-to-action into a question, using the 5 W’s (who, what, where, when, and why) as a way to encourage your followers to comment!

Aside from the obvious tips on using proper grammar and spelling, one of the most important parts of any good Instagram caption is brand voice. For many journalists they follow the AP Style Guide. Some organizations like NPR have their own caption style guide.


When adding hashtags to your Instagram caption, don’t limit yourself to keeping them at the end! Integrating hashtags throughout your post adds dimension to your caption, and since hashtags are a different color on Instagram, the right hashtag can also highlight and contextualize your content.

The hashtags help organize and categorize photos and video content, which aids the process of content discovery and optimization.

For example, a sports blogger could post a picture of an action shot, and then use the hashtags #actionphoto #actionphotography and #championship when it’s uploaded to Instagram.

Instead of using the most popular Instagram hashtags, it’s better to use the top Instagram hashtags that have an engaging community behind them and are specific to your audience.

So, how are you supposed to find these cool, creative, and community-oriented hashtags? The best way is to look and see what Instagram hashtags your audience, competitors, and industry leaders are already using.

One last tip about #Hashtags keep them to 5 or less. That might change but more than that the algorithms instagram uses to put your post up higher in feeds will ding you if they are too many right now.

What about legit Journalism on Instagram?

You may be very interested in how major news outlets are writing stories to accompany their photos on Instagram. I know I was very interested.

Here are some mainline media instagram feeds.


Today I believe one of the best places for the photojournalist to publish the stories they want to tell is on Instagram. To do so, these journalists are going to have to change the way they write their captions.

I hope this helps you think of how to engage your audience with the 5 Ws and limiting this to 2200 characters.

Here are some photojournalists worth following on Instagram.

Lynsey Addario

An American photojournalist, Lynsey, takes us to through the raw nooks and corners of the world with her photographs, building a visually pleasureful experience for us to witness the world through her eyes.

Ed Kashi

Documenting the on-going mayhem at Syria, Kashi a photojournalist, filmmaker and lecturer through his Instagram is portraying the world of Syrian refugees, oozing of emotions and getting us up, close, and personal with their misery amongst the others.

Andrew Quilty

As his bio reads ‘Stories not selfies’, this storyteller has embarked upon a journey to take us along with the naked world, putting out the beauties and flawless imperfections through this photographs.

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Flying toward Jalalabad Airfield—formerly a civilian airport, now occupied by US military—before continuing on to Achin District and the Mohmand Valley, where a US Army Operational Detachment Alpha team is fighting the Islamic State Khorasan Province with their Afghan National Army Special Forces counterparts. They are the third ODA to be based out of an Afghan farm compound turned COP Blackfish. Although two Afghan SF soldiers, and a member of their mine clearance team were killed, and one ODA member wounded during their deployment, most of the ISKP fighters they’d been sent to clear the valley of had either been killed or had relocated to districts to the north. There have been more than 50 suicide bombings and complex attacks and more than 800 deaths—mostly civilians—claimed by ISKP since the “Hamza” operations began in April 2017. Photo: @andrewquilty. April 2018. Full story here: The Last Americans Fighting in Afghanistan #nangarhar #afghanistan #chinook

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Randy Olson

Overwhelmed with emotions, hues and drama, Olson has his own perspective towards the world and he’s putting it across through spectacular visuals.

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This is the HQ of ZERO WASTE FRANCE in Paris. They’ve been leading the Zero Waste movement for 20 years. 23 cities have just agreed to become zero waste. This is from "Cities around the world are pledging to reduce waste over the next 12 years in an effort to curb global warming and eventually become zero-waste cities. During the Global Climate Action Summit, the C40 announced a new initiative that encourages cities to eliminate waste production and end the practice of waste burning. So far, 23 cities have agreed to become zero-waste and will work toward that goal by “reducing the amount of municipal solid waste disposed to landfill and incineration by at least 50 percent … and increase the diversion rate away from landfill and incineration to at least 70 percent by 2030,” #zerowaste #planetorplastic #plasticwaste @thephotosociety @natgeocreative

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There are six great aquifers in the world. In North America our great aquifer is the Ogallala—it stretches from South Dakota to the Texas panhandle. Twenty percent of our food and 40 percent of our beef rely on the aquifer. It’s unfortunate that we’ve pumped the equivalent of two Lake Eries out, setting the stage for a new desert in the Texas panhandle and southern Kansas in the immediate future. The aquifer recharges at different rates. Nebraska wins the water lottery; it is the only place you can see Ogallala water at the surface. The Ogallala takes a long time to recharge in Texas, where there are the most wells, the least regulation, the hottest temperatures (even before climate change), and the slowest recharge. Entire communities in this area are already running out of water. Scarcity of water, fragile infrastructure, small dust bowls, the family farm crisis, Big Ag, and global urbanization leave some behind with few options. Small towns are disintegrating around their residents. There is rampant meth and opioid addiction in some of these places. If your hot water heater breaks, there isn’t anyone in your entire county that can fix it. I am from the Midwest, and the pain rural folks have gone through showed up this election. I saw this frustration first-hand working on the Ogallala aquifer story that ran in the August 2016 issue of National Geographic, but I never thought the level of frustration of these communities would manifest itself in this way. @natgeo @natgeocreative @thephotosociety

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Gary S. Chapman

Because impacting lives matters, Gary helps organizations tell their stories visually. He has covered humanitarian stories in more than 70 countries around the world, helping groups create awareness, express their vision and build their community. You can trust him to bring an honest, photojournalistic approach to your commercial, corporate, editorial, or non-profit assignments.

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