May 30, 2003

Like most columns, this one started with a question: Is there a standard policy on datelines and bylines? One question quickly turned into a series of questions when it became clear that there is no single accepted practice. So, how do readers know what datelines and bylines mean? How much do they need to know? And how do we tell them?

I asked these questions of about a dozen former Poynter Ethics Fellows who work for small, medium, and large newspapers. The first surprise was that several folks either did not know their paper’s policies or were reluctant to say what they were. The second surprise was the wide variation in how these terms are interpreted. The third surprise was the extent to which, in some cases, they are not communicated to staffers and to the public. I received answers from folks at the Sacramento Bee, Chicago Tribune, Gannett News Service, Shelby Star, and from a writer formerly of The Wall Street Journal. Bob Steele also weighs in on the subject. Let us know how things work where you are and read what others have to say.

Mort Saltzman
Deputy Managing Editor, Sacramento Bee

Q: What are your paper’s policies on datelines, bylines, and other credits?
A: We tend to over-credit rather than not credit. A dateline is not used in conjunction with a byline unless the writer was in the city of the dateline. We use a tagline at the end of the story to give credit to anyone else who made a substantial contribution to the story. If one reporter was in the city of the dateline and the other was not, we note that at the end of the story. For example, Sally Smith wrote this story in Sacramento. (Click here to read the paper’s byline policy)

Q: What do/should your readers know about these policies?
A: Our readers probably do not know about these policies except when the newspaper’s Ombudsman writes about them. Should they? I certainly have no objection to them knowing virtually anything about the operation of our newspaper, including the thoughts that go into our decision making. Currently, the only vehicle for that on a regular basis is the Ombudsman who serves as the reader representative.

Q: How do readers, reporters, and editors know what these policies are?
A: I think I have answered that question concerning readers. Our dateline and byline policies are explained in our design and word stylebooks. This is not complete so what is not written is discussed among editors and communicated in person to reporters. In light of the problems at the New York Times, the managing editor this week reviewed our policies with department heads.

Don Wycliff
Public Editor, Chicago Tribune

Q: What are your paper’s policies on datelines, bylines, and other credits?
A: Datelines and byline policies are covered in the following entries from the Chicago Tribune stylebook: (Editor’s note: The two paragraphs below are excerpted from the full entries, which you can read here.)

Datelines: When a dateline appears on a bylined story, it suggests that the reporter has been to the dateline location to gather most of the information. If that is not the case, the story should not carry a dateline but should explain how the information was gathered. No such explanation is needed in obituaries … If a broadcast monitored in another city is the source of the information in a story, use the dateline of the city where the monitoring took place and explain in the story.

Bylines: All bylines take a title line, which should be put on a second line … Wire stories, with or without a byline, take a title line that identifies the source of the story: Associated Press; Daily Press of Newport News; Knight Ridder/Tribune news; The Orlando Sentinel; New York Times News Service; Sun-Sentinel, South Florida. Roundups and stories that use material from more than one wire source take the title line From Tribune News Services. If more than two reporters contributed to a story, it may be noted in a shirttail: Clark Kent and Lois Lane contributed to this report.
Q: What do/should your readers know about these policies?
A: They should know that a dateline means (or should mean) that the writer wrote the piece from that city. They should know that a byline means that person wrote the story. The other credit lines mean they contributed information which the writer used to craft the story.

Q: How do readers, reporters, and editors know what these policies are?
A: Readers, alas, have no way of knowing, unless the public editor explains it in a column. Reporters and editors should know them because each is issued a stylebook when they come to work here and the policies are part of the stylebook.

Caesar Andrews
Editor, Gannett News Service

Q: What are your paper’s policies on datelines, bylines, and other credits?
A: Datelines should be based on exact location reporters work from. Bylines go to the reporter or reporters who contribute significantly to story. Other credits may be used when someone else participates in gathering the news. There is a great degree of flexibility in how credits might be treated. The main objective is to reflect fairly and accurately those most involved in reporting and writing an article. On occasion, it’s possible for some stories to carry a Gannett News Service credit, with no name in byline.

Q: What do/should your readers know about these policies?
A: Because GNS is a wire service, we don’t have a direct relationship with local communities. So explanations of policies are left for local newsrooms to handle. In general, the guidelines and processes that shape news coverage should be as transparent as possible to the public.

Q: How do readers, reporters, and editors know what these policies are?
A: Gannett has ethical guidelines that apply across the Newspaper Division’s newsrooms, including GNS. Each news employee is required to sign a statement each year acknowledging the principles. And they are expected to adhere to standards as spelled out in statement. The guidelines are available for public viewing on the company’s website as well as on local sites throughout the country.

Here’s another comment from my GNS colleage, Jeanette Barrett-Stokes, managing editor for features/phots/graphics/news desk: “It also is the responsibility of supervisors to articulate newsroom standards and policies during the hiring process and any time after when it is clear that guidelines need to be reiterated.”

Skip Foster

Editor, Shelby (N.C.) Star

Q: What are your paper’s policies on datelines, bylines, and other credits?
A: Datelines reflect the location of the story, not necessarily the location of the reporter writing the story. Roundup stories go without a dateline. Since we’re too small of a paper to have the kind of stringers involved in the NYT controversy, our byline policy is pretty straightforward — you either wrote it or you didn’t. We use “Special to The Star” for contributed material, when a specific byline is not used.

Q: What do/should your readers know about these policies?
A: Do — probably not a whole lot. The truth is, many readers across the country would probably have a hard time telling an editor what a dateline is, much less the criteria for using one. Should — in the wake of the latest hubbub, it would probably be a good idea to have a weekly/monthly blurb on 2A or somewhere else defining these terms and explaining how they are used.

Q: How do readers, reporters, and editors know what these policies are? 
A: Readers — they pick it up on their own; Reporters — they pick it up on their own; Editors – they pick it up on their own. Seriously, though, it’s not a part of our orientation and probably should be. Having said that, we’ve never had a serious issue with any of these areas.

Joe Davidson
Free-lance writer, formerly of The Wall Street Journal

I worked at The Wall Street Journal for 13 years, and I know it had a policy that a reporter must report from a certain location for that location to be in the dateline. That policy was communicated to me when an editor called me at my posting in Johannesburg, South Africa, about a Windhoek, Namibia, dateline on my story. He mistakenly thought I had not visited Windhoek. I had reported from Windhoek, so there was no problem. Nonetheless, this example shows the kind of diligence editors should demonstrate.

Bob Steele
Senior Faculty & Ethics Group Leader
The Poynter Institute

It seems to me there are two ethical values at the core of the current debate about datelines and bylines. Honesty and fairness. One value serves those on the receiving end of the story –- the readers. The other serves those on the production end -– the reporters. 

Honesty is about accountabity. Fairness is about credit.

A newspaper has an obligation to be honest with its readers, to tell where a story originated and who is responsible. Readers deserve to know this information. The dateline signals the point of origin. It gives readers a geographic identifier to place the story. It also tells readers that the reporter has a direct connection to that location. The reporter was there. The dateline should heighten the understanding and trust.

The news story byline personalizes the report so readers know someone is responsible for what’s reported and written. It allows readers to hold someone accountable for the story. In essence, the byline says, “Believe this information because my name is on it.”

Fairness is about credit. It’s a newspaper’s responsibility to make sure those journalists who are responsible for the work product are appropriately recognized. Generally, the byline has one name and it’s the individual who did the reporting and interviewing and who then wrote the story. Sometimes, there are two or more names on the byline when the story is a joint effort.

Editors should set guidelines to determine the how and who of bylines. They should also set guidelines for the use of editor’s notes at the end of stories, a device that allows for credit for work on the story short of a byline. This can include the staff journalists who did research on the story or those who did some of the legwork reporting or interviewing. Editor’s notes can also be used to give credit to freelancers or stringers who contributed to the story in some fashion. And editor’s notes can give appropriate credit to the work of journalists at other news organizations that is incorporated within the story.     

[ What are your policies? How did you learn them? Do your readers know what they are? ]

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Julie Moos ( has been Director of Poynter Online and Poynter Publications since 2009. Previously, she was Editor of Poynter Online (2007-2009) and Poynter Publications…
Julie Moos

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