Bylines had huge effect on news reporting, says BGU prof

Study shows that once bylines started to appear in 1970s, readers began to see the news as a human account, paving way for celebrity journalists.

By
December 22, 2010 05:33
2 minute read.
Illustrative photo

Man reads Arabic newspaper in J'lem. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)

It might look like only a name to the naked eye, but according to one Ben-Gurion University researcher, the nearly ubiquitous use of bylines on newspaper articles has had a momentous impact on the way the news is conveyed.

Focusing on 12,000 articles published in The New York Times and The Times of London, Dr. Zvi Reich’s study, “Constrained authors: Bylines and authorship in news reporting,” probes how the use of bylines in modern journalism spread and eventually became almost ubiquitous, eventually having a major impact on how the news is consumed.

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“The impact of these ostensibly frivolous honors on news content has been no less than momentous, mostly because bylines represent an indirect admission that news is hardly an infallible mirror of reality, but rather an imperfect human attempt to document it,” Reich concludes.

The paper, which was published in the academic review Journalism in December, states that once bylines became to appear on the majority of articles in the 1970s, readers began to see the news as a human account, paving the way for celebrity journalists.

The emergence of such journalists had the effect of “altering power relations within the news industry and shifting news organizations from a position behind the news to one behind the people who gather and compose it.”

According to Reich, for both The New York Times and The Times of London, there was a four-stage process through which bylines began to become ubiquitous. Initially, paper’s sought to downplay the voice of the reporter, in order to give a sort of omniscient, god-like voice to the news.

“The rise of bylines at both papers was a fourstage process. First, the newspaper tries to avoid specific names, in an effort to maintain an authoritative, impersonal voice. Second, bylines are used to promote organizational goals, in the form of generic and news agency credits. Subsequently, the paper attributes only a select few staff writers, thereby loading its byline policy with unavoidable inconsistencies. Finally, the paper gradually gives up the selective bylines, crediting everyone, or nearly everyone.”

While the prevalence of bylines, which largely coincided with the rise of “new journalism,” helped create celebrity journalists, Reich contends that for most reporters the increase in the use of bylines did not improve their status.

“The study suggests that even when most or all news reporters are bylined, they remain constrained authors who contend with the organizational and commercial contexts of their employment, as well as their production and presentation routines.”


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