2003 May 28 Wednesday
News Article Datelines Are Meaningless

New York Times writer Rick Bragg, recently suspended from his job for using a stringer to do most of the interviewing for a story that Bragg flew in to write up, defends himself to Howard Kurtz arguing that what he did was routine.

Times editors are fully aware of these practices, said Bragg. He recalls asking to take an extra day on a story about a man who was awarded more than $1 million as the never-recognized son of musician Robert Johnson. But since the paper wanted the story immediately, he took two planes to Jackson, Miss., and "only got there by deadline," cobbling a story together literally on the fly.

Suppose what Bragg is saying is true. Kurtz knows enough about how print journalism is done to know whether Bragg is being realistic here. Kurtz says other staffers at the Times say they do not do as much of what Bragg does. But does that mean they do not do it as often with as high a percentage of their stories? Or does it mean they use stringers and assistants for a lower percentage of their material than Bragg uses them for? Writing in Slate Jack Shafer takes aim at Bragg. But I find the emphasis of Shafer's argument misplaced. Is Bragg the main offender? Or were his bosses aware that his travel schedule and filing deadlines made it impossible for him to have witnessed much of what he wrote about? It seems hard to believe that Bragg's managers did not know how he operated. They must have had some idea of his travel schedule and the total amount of time needed to do each article.

Shafer has a later article on Bragg where he argues that what Bragg did is not typical. But do we really know that? Also, as even Shafer acknowledges, we do not know how much Bragg's editors knew about Bragg's style of working. I suspect they had to know quite a bit about it in general regardless of how much they knew about where the material came from in the specific case where he filed an Apalachicola dateline. The fact that Bragg has apparently violated the written official Times dateline and byline policy does not prove that Bragg is guilty of misconduct. Lots of companies order their employees to do things that are not SOP. High level managers make the rules and they can order subordinates to break the rules. My take on this is that some newspapers are willing to fool us by having reporters fly to places and pretend that the credited writers are really doing all the interviewing and other work that their names at the top of the articles would make us believe they did.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2003 May 28 01:42 AM  Media Critique


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