Datelines and Bylines
the place where the story has its home or origin, and where the reporter
spends time, or should, gathering information for the piece, no longer
seems to have much meaning for some newspapers and for some reporters.
Major newspapers, such as The New York Times, (only mentioned because
it is in the news so much lately) use stringers, freelancers or even
interns, to gather information the reporter then adds to the story as
seamlessly as possible. It works until the public, not an editor, catches
the transgressor as my father once said, with his pants down.
Photographers never, to my knowledge, have that problem. They must be
on the scene to get their picture. There would be no photo without the
person clicking the shutter to get the action he sees. It is hard to
fake a fire or garden show. You must be there to get your story. In
television, the reporter must be on the scene the standup, open, middle,
close, to survive the nastiness of competition. We are witnessing the
decline of the dateline for the sake of new honesty. Lately the dateline,
once an important part of a story, seems to be going the way of Jayson
Blair, far from the action and just as well.
Now, quite separately, the byline presents another problem that is as
difficult to define for print as it is for broadcasting. Suddenly newspapers
everywhere are more conscious, so they say, of who gets credit for the
work they do. In every paper, there are more shared bylines that obviously
include stringers and lesser known or junior reporters. This new trend
is just in time, especially when some journalists arrogantly deny their
use. That old saw about truth in advertising is back and we should never
let it slip again away again.
We are also seeing bylines without datelines when the story originates
at home, in the newsroom where the paper first breathes life. This is
especially so at the New York Times, our good gray sister with all her
credibility problems. I see it in Newsday, The Washington Post, The
Wall Street Journal and others. I cannot understand why this did not
exist in the past. Perhaps Jayson Blair did some good after all. It
only takes one bad apple to awaken our ethics, seemingly long dormant
through this era in the new century where competition destroys good
sense, which is what much journalism is or should be.
Without the once sacred dateline, seeing the byline alone, our knowledge
and understanding of the story may be less than before the still exploding
scandal at the Times. Where does the article come from? Should we not
know where the reporter writes? At home? In the newsroom? In a bar?
On a park bench. Does the audience want to know? Do readers care? I
care. I want the reporter to leave his desk, get off his fanny, make
his way to the story and see for himself what he will write. Phone interviews
are fine. E-mail and instant message discussions are okay but lack the
personal touch. We should know where the reporter conducts interviews,
but without seeing a person in front of you, they are cold, antiseptic,
without emotion. Seeing the person's face, watching a pair of eyes,
observing a twitch or two, witnessing a lip curl all help in making
for a better story. That now is missing because too many reporters appear
to be at a desk too often to allow the subtlety of their piece to come
through as it makes its way across the page and finally lands in the
editors hands, meaning his computer screen.
You will notice I never mention the TV reporter or correspondent, the
euphemism they prefer, where the dateline is more important than even
the content of the story. I can see it now. The correspondent, female
or male, standing at a location saying loudly and clearly, this is so
and so reporting live from (pause) my desk, the newsroom, a street corner
in Baltimore . . . ah, what the heck, from anywhere you want me to be
so long as you let me into your home every evening at the same time.
You see, the correspondent says, my face tells you where I am and you
just have to take my word for it even if you are sure I am not there,
certainly not so when this piece plays if it is on tape. Live is different.
Live is, well, live and unless deception is the mode of the day, we
should always believe the person is where they and the anchor says they
are. You will get no argument from me. However, television news is not
exempt from dateline fiddling that takes place mostly on the magazine
shows 60 Minutes, Dateline, and 20/20. I am not giving away trade secrets
when I reveal that correspondents parachute (meaning they land on the
scene of a story seemingly out of nowhere) into a story for barely a
moment, do several interviews and then return to their home base or
fly to another story where they repeat their trick. Barely in place
long enough to smell the coffee, they get the major interview, often
the basis for the entire piece, and the dateline, setting them in place
at the location. Often television news gets away with the dateline problem
by not having the correspondent do a signoff to establish presence on
the ground. But not always, because in the eyes of producers, the dateline
gives the story its credibility, something they need badly and that
is sorely lacking today in broadcast news.
Will it end, this sudden penchant for the new honesty in journalism?
Everything works in fads, so, who knows? In the interests of full disclosure,
though, and in fairness to my readers, I wrote this piece in my office
at home in the village where I live in Nassau County New York. I wrote
it on an iMac using Word, and the typeface was Palatino, 12 point for
size. I sent it to the publisher using Outlook Express. The errors and
opinions are mine alone.
© Ron Steinman
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Television's First War