National press byline bandits: When the first line of a story is a lie, how can we trust the rest?

If national newspapers took greater care over the little lies – perhaps bigger ethical problems, arising from much bigger deceptions, would be less common.

Take, for example, the widespread deception which is highlighted by the NAPA news agency awards – which took place on Friday.

If you have a closer look at Press Gazette’s account of the event – and particularly our illustrations of the winning work – you will see what I mean. Very few of the agency journalists who supplied the stories are credited in the national publications which their work appeared in.

Exclusive of the year, for example, went to London Media Press’s Andrew Buckwell for his story about London Mayor Boris Johnson finding himself at the centre of a wealthy socialite’s paternity riddle. But if you look at the Daily Mail cutting to accompany his entry you will see no sign of his byline on it.

The same is true for Ben Ellery’s ‘spec’ news story of the year – an interview with the boyfriend of murdered architect Jo Yeates. Four bylines appear on the Daily Mail story which was based on his work – but none of them are his. He is also not credited in the Daily Mirror, which also carried the piece.

It’s long established practice for many national newspapers to be pretty cavalier over the use of bylines – with some titles even using fictional ‘house’ bylines for no good reason (especially for stories which snipe at competitors, as with ‘Brendan Abbot’ at the Daily Express).

What’s the harm in it? some might say. But if newspapers lie about the first fact in a story, what signal does it send out about the rest of what they produce?

When I touched base with NAPA about this issue, a spokesman said that older agency hands are inured to the lack of public credit they get for their work – consoling themselves that cash in the pocket is more important than public acclaim. But he said the issue does rankle with younger reporters trying to make a name for themselves.

A NAPA spokesman said: “The 1998 Copyright Act calls for the orginator of a story or photograph to receive acknowledgement.

“Since the Act came in photographers received copyright credits as a matter of routine, yet reporters are often denied their byline.

“Sometimes it can be simply explained away as a mistake or even professional jealousy.  Some titles still operate a general rule that they do not award freelance bylines on named on submitted stories.

“It’s very galling the reporter who has put in a lot of hard work and often commercially damaging for the agency since it does not help when others breach copyright by lifting material from newspapers or their websites.”

Bylines should provide transparency and accountability. Let’s start using them with a bit more honesty.

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