The cult of the byline

Reading Monday's article at on corrections, I find myself at odds with Steve Buttry and Craig Silverman, who think that errors inserted by editors should be identified as such, because bylines make reporters visible and expose them to social-media abuse. 

I may have to rethink that. 

People who have commented on the subject point out that readers of a bylined story assume that the writer is responsible for any and all errors. So before I change my mind about what would be an appropriate policy, I'd like to put the byline and corrections issue in context for my lay readers. (You who are pros can go back to reading Romenesko.) 

Bylines were originally rare in American newspapers, conferred on work of exceptional originality or accomplishment. Today, a one-paragraph brief, even if it is a rewritten (or transcribed) press release, will go into print with an author's credit. Talk of the merits aside, it is clear that this practice strongly identifies the reporter with the work. 

There is reason for that. Reporting and writing are primary; editing is secondary. I have always said so. Without a writer-generated text, there is no editing, no publication. 

But if the byline encourages a perception that the story is solo work, then it distorts perception. The newspaper is a collective and collaborative production, as in the not-uncommon steps I listed on my post Monday. Don't imagine that this is the case only with the big boys. When I worked in high school at the Flemingsburg Gazette, I reported and wrote stories; Lowell Denton, the publisher, turned in copy and occasionally revised mine; and Marie Arrasmith, who set type on the Just-O-Writer regularly made changes in the text. 

Think of a symphony orchestra. If the conductor invites the oboist to take a separate bow for the oboe solo in the Tchaikovsky Fourth Symphony, the performer's artistry and accomplishment are recognized, but the audience sees that the entire orchestra performed the work.

This has been the principal rationale for a corrections policy that does not point fingers: the publication is a collective and collaborative production, and the publication, the institution, takes collective responsibility for errors. Just as it does for legal issues. If the paper is sued for libel, the reporter isn't told, "I see you have a problem with your story. Better get yourself a lawyer." 

I have to admit (conceding that this is unworthy) to being a little chafed when a reporter complains that a correction for an error made by someone else makes him look bad, because I know how many people have been at pains to make him look good. I've mentioned before the reporter who filed a story, which his editor moved to the copy desk intact, that misspelled the name of the U.S. attorney for Maryland fourteen times; we thought this represented an improvement in the reporter's technique, since the misspellings were uniform. 

If a reporter is occasionally unfairly criticized for someone else's mistakes, he has also repeatedly reaped unearned credit from the correction of his mistakes before publication. 

A secondary justification is the no-finger-pointing policy is the who cares? question. Do readers pay attention to who made the mistake? Does it matter much to anyone if an unnamed assigning editor or copy editor is held responsible? Maybe the source of the story would think so. But if the reporter tells the source, "My boss rewrote and botched my story," or resorts to the ever-popular "The copy desk ruined my story," I expect that his credibility with the source will remain intact. 

But in the interest of Transparency, we could preface each correction with "Because of a reporter's error," "Because of an assigning editor's error," "Because of a copy editor's error," "Because of an assistant managing editor's error," "Because of a faceless underling's error." The resulting underbrush would have the effect of distracting from what exactly was wrong.   

I'm still more than a little inclined to think that the finger-pointing is more appropriate in-house, in performance reviews and disciplinary proceedings. We make errors collectively. After all, the assigning editor and the copy desk did not catch the reorter's error. We take responsibility collectively. 



A note on blogging: What I have written above does not apply to this blog, which is a solo effort. I do not have an editor, though I would be deeply grateful for someone who could catch my typos and errors of fact, who could point out gaps or identify what could be explained more clearly, who who could advise me when my prose effects misfire. I have only me. When you identify an error in these posts, either in a comment or by a private message, I will thank you gratefully and make the fix. I take full responsibility. 



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