Practicing Celebrity Journalism

Does the byline encourage/discourage you to read a particular article? Are we reading a publication, or a celebrity journalist? According to research by Dr. Zvi Reich (from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev) and published this month in the academic journal Journalism, the proliferation of bylines characterized the news as an imperfect, all too human account of reality, and opened the way for celebrity journalism.

Focusing on The New York Times as the chief case study and The Times of London, Reich explores the phenomenon of bylines in modern journalism and their major impact on the way news is consumed and understood, as well documenting the process through which journalists fought to receive name recognition of their work.

“Today, when we open a newspaper or click on a web site, we take it for granted that we will see a byline – the name of the reporter who authored the piece, at the beginning of each article.

But the byline is a relatively new phenomenon in the history of journalism and that papers as respected as The New York Times went out of their way to avoid using bylines as a means of underplaying the importance of the individual reporters,” explains Reich, a researcher in the University’s Department of Communications Studies. “This study traces the complicated and fragmented policies that the newspapers used to maintain the balance of power over reporters and the process that they underwent as writers and other contributors pushed for recognition and control of their work,” he says.

Reich writes in his paper that “ bylines characterized the news as an imperfect, all-too-human account of reality, opening the way towards journalistic stardom, altering power relations within the news industry and shifting news organizations from a position behind the news to one behind the people who gather and compose it.”

His research is based on more than 12,000 articles published in The New York Times and The Times of London. Reich found that in both cases, the growth of bylines was a painfully slow four-step process, which took more than 70 years to become an established practice. First, the newspaper tried to avoid specific names, in an effort to maintain an authoritative, omnipresent “god-like” voice. Second, bylines were used to promote organizational goals, in the form of generic (i.e., staff writer) and news agency credits. Then, the papers attributed stories to the names of a select few staff writers. Finally, the papers gradually gave up the selective bylines, crediting everyone in nearly all instances.