- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 31, 2003

Interns and stringers

It was easy enough to feel some sympathy for the New York Times during its scandal over the blatant fabrication of news by reporter Jason Blair: While it is hard to fathom how his editors could have been fooled so badly for so long, it was a case of one bad apple who was promptly removed from the barrel.

But the latest fuss that culminated with the resignation of Rick Bragg — a national reporter who has vigorously defended his practice of bylining work performed mainly by interns and stringers — raises some interesting ethical questions that are not much discussed in the journalism schools.

Certainly this is not the way we use stringers and interns at The Washington Times — if only because we seldom have the luxury of being able to assign more than one person to a story.

We do have a well-equipped library, staffed by talented people who help our reporters with their research every day. But most of that is a matter of poring through databases and encyclopedias to find names and dates and determine what has been published previously about a subject.

When we have interns, we put them to work as quickly as we can reporting and writing their own stories, under close supervision from our staff reporters and editors. While we might sometimes ask them to research a chart or even help with some clerical work, they almost invariably leave us with a nice stack of bylined clippings they can use in a future job search.

With stringers — free-lance reporters whom we use regularly — that is even more true. We generally employ these reporters in cities and countries where we do not have a staff reporter and rely on them to write their own bylined stories. If material from a stringer finds its way into a staff-written story, we credit the stringer at the bottom of the story.

I first learned what the New York Times was doing a few months ago from a longtime colleague who is now free-lancing for that publication, among others.

The colleague was thrilled to be getting work with the Times, as most journalists would be. But it was frustrating to work all day on stories — sometimes driving hours for an interview — only to see the material appear without so much as a credit line.

I had two reactions when I heard this.

On the one hand, I thought, wouldn’t it be wonderful to work for a news organization so rich that it could hire people to do the legwork for its stories so that the reporters simply had to sit in an office and write.

But it also stuck me as mean-spirited toward the stringers and interns, and left me wondering about the ethics of it.

Datelines and the AP

Some years ago, when I ran a wire agency bureau in Manila, we had a number of locally hired reporters whose job it was to sit all day at police headquarters, armed forces headquarters or the presidential palace in case an official came out and said something of interest. Another local reporter sat in the bureau and listened to the Tagalog-language radio for news breaks.

Given the state of the telephone system in Manila at that time — not to mention the impossibility of getting anywhere through traffic in less than two hours — it was the only way to operate. But it left the American staff reporters in the bureau with little to do but sit and wait for the news to flow in, and then craft it into a story.

Sometimes we would file the stories under our own bylines, much as Rick Bragg describes doing, but if a story was based principally on the reporting of one of the local staffers, we generally gave the byline to that reporter. We saw this not as an ethical issue so much as one of fairness and giving credit where it was due.

There was another aspect to the Rick Bragg episode that I found even more troubling: This was his public defense of swooping into a city airport to justify using that city’s dateline on a story along with his byline.

The Associated Press style guide, which is taken as the industry standard on such matters, is very clear on the matter. It says a dateline “should tell the reader that the AP obtained the basic information for the story in the datelined city.”

In another entry, it adds that a byline should be used “only if the reporter was in the datelined community to gather the information reported.”

Clearly, passing through an airport after gathering the information by telephone or from a stringer does not meet this standard.

David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is [email protected]


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