Digital media / Journalism

Where’s Gus? MLive city datelines don’t always mean what they should

BIRMINGHAM, Mich. – This isn’t a news story. It just opens in the style of one to draw a distinction between truth and trickiness.

That upper-case city name shows where this was written, a print news tradition called a dateline. It’s a telegraph era holdover that migrated to the digital news age, with geographic datelines sometimes posted atop dispatches by staff writers, wire services and outside contributors.

Virtually all news sites and traditional media play it straight under staff bylines, reserving datelines for on-site reporting – not calls to the place named, email replies from there or summaries linked to reporting by others in that city.

We’ve got an outlier In Michigan, however. MLive uses datelines on aggregated pickups prepared at its 10 regional “hubs” or elsewhere.

Kelly Adrian Frick
MLive director of community news

“We strongly suggest that reporters use datelines on most of their stories and posts, says Kelly Adrian Frick, MLive Media Group director of community news.  “This can sometimes look clunky, particularly when the story location isn’t where the reporter is sitting,” she acknowledged Sept. 7 from Standish in response to an email inquiry.  “Because of that, we are constantly evaluating how and when the use of datelines makes sense.”          

Readers may not recognize the distinction or care, and it’s less important than whether a story is clear, correct and cogent. But in this age of lean news staffs and repackaged content, news aggregators may use bogus datelines to masquerade as street reporters.

WHERE’S GUS?

At MLive, content directors “believe readers like to know immediately where the story is originating,” Frick explains. “Location can also help with SEO.”

Questions arose after MLive writer Gus Burns, who lives in Hamtramck, seemed to roam widely through Southeast Michigan in a workday:

  • Aug. 31: Taylor dateline leads his pickup from the Associated Press and examiner.com about a road rage fatality there.
  • Aug. 28: Five reports “from” Auburn Hills, Rockwood and Detroit are aggregated pickups.
  • Aug. 24: Pontiac dateline tops a report on Oakland County Jail early releases, linked to The Detroit News and quoting a county commissioner he called or emailed.
  • Aug. 23: Five reports are filed “from” Detroit and one is “from” Sterling Heights. All are attributed pickups from other media, each datelined from where that source had reported, such as Fox 2 in Sterling Heights.

    Gus Burns

On other days, Burns has two or so bylines as he files in-person trial coverage, enterprise articles and news photos.  Most colleagues in his six-reporter Metro Detroit group typically have a handful of daily bylines, virtually all datelined. (MLive Media Group operates in 10 markets statewide, and I’m familiar only with Metro Detroit’s as a daily visitor.)

Frick replied after asking why I’m interested. I explained, in part:

“As an avid news consumer interested in the process of journalism, I value a sense of how and where an article was gathered. . . . I also have an old-school purist’s view of when geographic datelines fit and when they can mislead. . . . ‘Inside baseball,’ arguably, but an issue worth addressing.”

Here’s why it’s worthwhile:  At a time when media encourage “community conversations” and promote transparency as a core value, this style issue gives MLive a chance to clarify its ethical standards.

An Aug. 24 email message to Frick and two other MLive news executives about datelines included policy examples from elsewhere:

  • “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.” — Bob Steele, Poynter Institute ethics group leader
  • “The dateline should accurately reflect where most of the reporting originated and where the reporter physically gathered the information.” — Denver Post ethics policy
  • “A dateline is not used in conjunction with a byline unless the writer was in the city of the dateline.” — Sacramento Bee, via Poynter link above
  • “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.” — Chicago Tribune, via Poynter post
  • “Datelines should be based on exact location reporters work from.” — Gannett News Service, via Poynter

As those guidelines show, MLive deviates from media industry best practices.

It’s encouraging that Kelly Frick says the group is “constantly evaluating . . . the use of datelines” because the current overuse makes it tough to know “Where’s Gus?” or where other writers do their journalism.

Your turn

 Does this matter? When should an article deserve a dateline? Click ‘Leave a comment’ at top of post.   

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5 thoughts on “Where’s Gus? MLive city datelines don’t always mean what they should

  1. Pingback: Detroit News writer Frank Donnelly shows why good newspapers remain vital | Alan's Alley

  2. Pingback: Homepage

  3. As someone who often works remotely, I have found the “Place the article was written” to be a bit confusing. But I agree, that if the story originates in Detroit and you don’t actually visit Detroit to cover the city, then leave out the dateline.

  4. A Michigan journalist comments in a personal note:

    “I’ve noticed this dateline practice, too. I saw a story a while back written by a Grand Rapids Press reporter with a Washington, D.C. dateline. I was pretty sure he wasn’t there.”

  5. TROY, MI (But I’m actually in Wic-A-Te-Wah, MI)

    Good piece, Alan. I think the first time I ran into this weird discrepancy was when I was interviewed on the radio and they said, “Live from the streets of Pleasant Ridge …” on the recorded tape. They meant, “this was recorded live.”

    It’s kind of like Hunter S. Thompson covering the Super Bowl from his hotel room TV.

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