Datelines and Bylines
July 2003

by Ron Steinman

The dateline, 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

Buy Ron Steinman's book: Inside Television's First War


Write a Letter to the Editor
Join our Mailing List
© The Digital Journalist