Saturday, August 25, 2012

Byline Fakery in Outsourced Articles: Another (Unnecessary) Journatic Misstep

Writing for the website on July 16, Jeff Sonderman reported that “outsourcing company Journatic used previously undisclosed fake bylines on more than 350 stories published on behalf of the Houston Chronicle.” (See )

Sonderman noted this revelation followed other reports that Journatic used fake bylines on work published in the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Sun-Times and the San Francisco Chronicle.

He went on to report that Journatic co-founder and CEO Brian Timpone “told Poynter several times that Journatic never has and never will use aliases” and reproduced an email in which Timpone repeated his denial.

“We now know,” Sonderman wrote, “that was not true.”

One favorite byline associated with Journatic stories seems to have been “Chad King.” Sonderman reported its use on at least 342 articles. He wrote that Journatic sources claimed the use of the Chad King byline was not an attempt at subterfuge but rather (further) evidence of sloppy internal controls, since, the sources said, that moniker was intended to be used only as an internal placeholder and never to be published.

Sonderman concluded with “Why does any of this matter?” and went on to reference Reuters media critic Jack Shafer's column in which Shafer wrote that “knowing the identity of the writers makes it easier to read a newspaper critically and hold writers accountable.”

Of course, Shafer (and Sonderman) are completely correct. I agree utterly.

All this noted, how should one craft bylines for articles written by offshored writers?

This is a subject I've thought about before, since I have employed overseas researchers and newswriters for over six years.  But first, a quick explanation as to why such a simple question is trickier than it seems.

In my system, the Journtent System, articles are budgeted and assigned by local editors who work in the community being covered. Research is done and interviews conducted by local staff. After the materials are collected (interviews, research, copies of press releases, video, audio, etc.) the entire package is assigned – with a clear angle and sometimes even a draft lede – by the local editor to the outsourced writer.  When the story comes back, it is fact-checked and copy edited locally.

We have never published a fake byline to mask an outsourced story's origin, and never would. Rather, for us, the question becomes (for transparency's sake), just how many people should be included on the byline?

Conceivably a story could be written by Myko Chiong, incorporating interviews and research conducted by James Macpherson, with transcriptions of the interviews produced by Faith Fernandez, and include photography by Candice Merrill.  (In fact, this is representative of a number of articles we have actually published.)

In such a case, we have routinely published the writer's name and the photographer's name. The article would be bylined:  “Story by MYKO CHIONG | Photography by CANDICE MERRILL.”

The Journatic debacle, along with Jack Shafer's edict that the function of the byline is accountability, now force me to ask if more detailed bylines should be mandatory with outsourced articles which involve a number of people performing separate functions.

In fact, byline formulae for outsourced articles should be discussed and standardized by academics and trade organizations in light of the fact that outsourcing will continue to grow in publishing, and outsourced articles tend to have more producers than do traditional content.

Some may argue that the location of the producers should be included as well, in which case a reader could identify whether a writer is local or offshore. The use of a dateline alone would not suffice to fully disclose where the story was produced, in the sense that the materials used in the story could well have been obtained by local staff but then written or transcribed remotely.

Until discussions of standardization occurs, we at Journtent will advocate for the publishing of full-disclosure, accurate bylines of writers (using their legal names) as well as the names of key researchers, interviewers, and others involved in the production of published editorial content. We are conducting a review of our websites and will institute new expanded bylining within the next ten days.

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