The writer’s intention is irrelevant. The reader’s interpretation is all that matters.
That’s why news organizations should review the way they approach the dateline (the city named at the top of the article, before the first sentence). So many articles are deceptive from — literally — the first word.
The New York Times ran an article this week about a coup in Burundi. The article bore a dateline of Nairobi, Kenya, a good 800 miles and two countries away (to put it in perspective, consider an article that starts with the words “SAN FRANCISCO” and tells you about an event in Tijuana, even though these two cities are worlds apart). A Wall Street Journal article the next day, also about events in Burundi, had a dateline of Kigali, Rwanda; closer, but still not quite there.
Most major news agencies won’t run a dateline for a city unless the reporter was physically there. So in this case, a reporter in Nairobi, armed with a phone and internet connection, gathered the necessary facts, wrote the story, and included the Nairobi dateline because, well, that’s where he was. He was dutifully following a widely accepted industry standard.
And there is a rationale to this standard. Burundi doesn’t generate enough attention to justify stationing a reporter there, and the Times isn’t trying to pretend its writer made the trek for this story.
That’s why Shawn Murphy, Professor of Journalism at Plattsburgh State University in Plattsburgh, N.Y., supports this dateline practice. “Otherwise, you are being deceptive with your audience,” he says. He pointed me to an informal survey of editors that agree with this stance, and who use this policy in an attempt to be consistent and forthright with the reader. This is essential.
The problem, though, is most readers don’t know about this policy. Most time-pressed, article-skimming readers expect the city named in the dateline to be the primary location of the story’s action. They aren’t professional journalists, nor do they know any to help them dissect the secret language of newspaper style books.
The remedy? A universal standard that is clearly communicated to the public. Because when the writer and reader don’t realize they’re speaking different languages, they end up worlds apart.
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