To an extent, of course, that shift is very much to the good: Sourcing matters, in the critical interpretation of journalism as well as journalism itself. Awareness of journalism’s authorship creates crucial context for news consumption. Readers, inundated as they are with deluges of information, need now more than ever to be savvy in their interpretation of the news—and that savviness extends to their awareness of the news’s authors. Because the author of journalism—her cultural upbringing, her socioeconomic status, her political proclivities, her education, her friends and associates—affects the product of journalism.

And yet, and yet, and yet. Author awareness can lead consumers astray because that awareness is, at its core, a flawed concept. Journalism—the news reporting I’m concerned with here, at any rate—does not, in fact, have an author. It has authors, plural. Or, more specifically, to borrow Foucault’s phrase, it has an author function. Journalism is the product not of a single person, but of a community, working in concert to produce a narrative. (Journalistic text is, in that sense, the opposite of literary text: It derives its authority not from the authenticity of idiosyncrasy, but rather from the codification of conversation—from the consent, as it were, of the governed.) At its most basic, news represents a kind of dialectic between the reporter and his sources, between the reporter and the information he unearths in his reporting. Usually, though, it represents more: a conversation in which reporter and sources and information—and editors and more editors and still more editors—engage with each other, discursively: refining the details, expanding the context, excising the extremities, tightening and tempering the text.

The mitigating effect of news’s institutional discursiveness can operate both for the better (‘edited by committee’ as a boast) and for the worse (‘edited by committee’ as an affront). But the point is the mitigating effect in the first place. Bylines are misleading: When it comes to straight news reporting, no narratives are singular in their sources. Narrative construction is a communal endeavor. This is a fact that audiences—and critics—of journalism too often forget.

And it’s one that we forget at our peril. There’s a fine line, after all, between author function and author fixation—a fixation that, in questioning journalists’ capabilities as mechanical producers of news, misconstrues them as emotional filterers of it. It’s this fixation that has let journalism’s reputation erode under a barrage of bias charges from both the right and the left—and has allowed journalism as an institution to fall prey to the intentional fallacy. It’s a fixation, in other words, whose logical conclusion reduces the qualitative analysis of our news to the who it’s from rather than the what it is.

The toxicity of that tendency, as realized in our journalism, is hard to overstate. Because when the identity of the author eclipses in our judgment the text that author produces—the words on the page, the images on the screen, etc.—journalism cedes too much to the ephemera of authorial identity. It shifts focus from the text to the subtext. It removes journalism, essentially, from the realm of the analytical, placing it instead in the land of the fanciful: a place where bias charges and their many, many counterparts are allowed to fester, unanswered, for the simple reason that they are fundamentally unanswerable. Daniel Okrent, The New York Times’s first public editor, noted during a recent talk that even an anodyne sentence like “Tel Aviv is the capital of Israel” tended, during his tenure, to elicit floods of indignant responses from Times readers. Is there anything, really, that he could he have said to convince those readers of the basic veracity of the Times’s claim?

No, probably not. And therein lies the problem.

Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.