- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 4, 2006

Missing bylines

Newspapers around the country have done a lot of soul-searching in recent years about the appropriate use of anonymous sources. But we are just starting to face up to another issue that is at least as problematic — the use of anonymous reporters.

Reporters’ bylines have become so much a part of the landscape in American newspapers that few readers realize they were not always there. But well into the 20th century, bylines were rare or nonexistent.

It is still largely that way with the wire agencies — Associated Press, Reuters and others. While the wires generally put the reporters’ bylines on all major stories, many newspapers strip them off before publishing them.

Bylines serve in part to gratify the egos of the reporters. Most of us in this business could be making more money doing something else, but we do it because of intangibles, including the high level of satisfaction that comes from having your work read by tens or hundreds of thousands of people.

The bylines also serve other valuable purposes. They make it possible for a reader to become familiar with the work of a particular reporter, his expertise and biases, and thereby to make more informed decisions on whether to believe what they read.

They also make it easier for reporters to build relationships of trust with their regular sources. When these people — government officials, diplomats, lawyers, lobbyists — tell something to a reporter and then see it appear under his or her byline, they make decisions on whether to talk to that reporter again.

A trade-off

Increasingly, however, we are facing situations in foreign countries where the publication of a reporter’s name can expose him or her to expulsion by an autocratic government or, in places such as Iraq, kidnapping, mutilation and death.

In Zimbabwe, visas are routinely denied to reporters with a record of criticizing the government. A freelance reporter who covered elections there for us a couple of years ago was only able to do so by entering the country under a disguised identity.

In Iran, authorities have begun to expel foreign reporters who write unflattering articles; the mere fact of reporting that crackdown is going on is enough to put a reporter at risk.

In Iraq, simply being identified as a reporter for a Western newspaper brings grave danger. A Westerner is liable to be kidnapped for ransom; an Iraqi is liable to be picked up along with all his family and brutally murdered.

How can we protect these reporters? We strictly prohibit pseudonyms, which carry a faint whiff of dishonesty. On one occasion, we broke our own rule and allowed a Briton writing from the West Bank to use a pseudonym; when questions were raised, the use of the false name made it much harder for us to defend a story that ultimately proved to be accurate.

The best solution, it seems to us, is to roll back the clock and publish certain articles with no bylines at all. We have done this a few times in recent months on articles from Iraq, Iran and Burma; they have appeared with a simple credit line saying “The Washington Times” and a note at the bottom explaining why the writer’s name was withheld.

Other organizations are facing the same problems and dealing with them in different ways. The biggest American newspapers, which have large bureaus in Baghdad, hire Iraqis to go out in the streets, talk to people and report on events. But the stories generally appear under the bylines of senior reporters who seldom step outside of secure compounds.

Even they are starting to shift their policies. At least once recently I noticed an article in a major competitor with a note at the bottom saying, “An Iraqi reporter contributed to this article.”

It’s not ideal, but if it means the reporter is safer and better able to report events without fear of retaliation, we think its a reasonable trade-off.

David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is djones@washingtontimes.com.

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