More and more, as a result, audiences are aware not only of the journalism reporters produce, but also of the lives they lead: who their friends are, what music and movies and books they like, how they interact with acquaintances, etc., etc. And more and more, we journalists are selling ourselves by selling our selves—which is to say, our full identities. Not as incidental aspects to our journalism, but as central ones.
This isn’t a pervasive phenomenon, to be sure—the vast majority of the journalists that remain to toil in their craft do so under the traditional veil of effective anonymity—but it is increasingly common. To the extent that we can identify a trajectory. Increasingly, the ethos of celebrity—which entails a fixation on the personhood of the celebrity as well as the cultural products that won her fame in the first place—trickles down from the echelons of our opinion pages (‘Win a trip with Nick Kristof!’) and anchor chairs (Half an hour with Brian Williams!) and into journalism’s rank-and-file. Reporters, as producers of news, are increasingly branded not only in the macro sense—top-down, vertical, ephemeral—but also in the micro: personal likes and dislikes, political leanings, friends and associates, educational background. Increasingly, we are aware of reporters not merely as purveyors of narrative, but as people who purvey narrative.
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.