Why journalists need to link

By Felix Salmon
February 27, 2012
Jonathan Stray has a great essay up at Nieman Lab entitled "Why link out? Four journalistic purposes of the noble hyperlink".

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Jonathan Stray has a great essay up at Nieman Lab entitled “Why link out? Four journalistic purposes of the noble hyperlink”. I basically agree with all of it; links are wonderful things, and the more of them that we see in news stories — especially if they’re external rather than internal links — the better.

It’s very easy to agree that if a story refers to some other story or document, and if that other story or document is online, then it should be hyperlinked. But Stray goes further than that:

In theory, every statement in news writing needs to be attributed. “According to documents” or “as reported by” may have been as far as print could go, but that’s not good enough when the sources are online.

I can’t see any reason why readers shouldn’t demand, and journalists shouldn’t supply, links to all online resources used in writing a story.

Tellingly, Stray provides no hyperlinks at all for his assertion that “every statement in news writing needs to be attributed”. Is this really true? It certainly isn’t in the UK, where I come from. What’s more, even before the WSJ got taken over by foreign marauders like Rupert Murdoch and Robert Thomson, it followed this rule mostly just by inserting the stock phrase “according to people familiar with the situation” into any story. That phrase, of course, tells the reader exactly nothing.

In recent days, a debate has emerged online on what I consider to be two very different subjects, which are getting unhelpfully elided. The first question, raised by MG Siegler, is whether outlets like the WSJ have an obligation to say who first broke a piece of news, when they report that news. The second question, which is often mistaken for the first, is whether outlets like the WSJ should link to outside sources of information.

To the second question, my answer is simple: yes. But look at the story by Jessica Vascellaro about Apple acquiring Chomp. There’s only one part of that story which obviously needs a hyperlink, if such a thing were available, and that’s in the first sentence, where we’re told that Apple said it has acquired Chomp. If there’s some kind of public press release from Apple saying such a thing, then the WSJ should link to it. But there isn’t, so the lack of any link there is forgivable.

What Siegler wants is for extra text to be added in to Vascellaro’s story, saying that he first broke the news. And I’m pretty sure that Stray would want the same thing — after all, Vascellaro’s own tweet does imply that she first got wind of the story online, before confirming it with Apple. If it was Siegler’s article which caused Vascellaro to call Apple, then Siegler certainly counts as an online resource used in writing the WSJ story, and should therefore, by Stray’s formulation, be fully linked and credited.

On the other hand, if Stray agrees with Siegler, that doesn’t mean that Siegler agrees with Stray. Siegler cited no source at all, named or anonymous, for his scoop that Apple had bought Chomp: he simply asserted the fact. “Apple has bought the app search and discovery platform Chomp, we’ve learned.” If every statement in news writing needs to be attributed, then Siegler just failed that test.

But I don’t think it does. If you attribute a statement like that to “sources familiar with the situation”, or something along those lines, then the attribution looks a lot like a CYA move. Consider the difference between (a) “Apple has bought Chomp”, and (b) “Apple has bought Chomp, say sources familiar with the situation”. Technically speaking, if the sale falls through, then (a) is false, while (b) was actually true. In that sense, failing to provide attribution is a way of sticking your neck out and asserting news to be a fact. Here’s Siegler:

I reported the Apple acquisition of Chomp as a fact for good reason — It. Was. A. Fact. If I had reason to believe it may not be a done deal or not 100% certain, I would have said that. I did not because I didn’t need to.

Not too long ago, I had a conversation with a journalist who was adamantly sticking up for her story in the face of criticism. The story included a statement of the form “X, says Y”, where Y was an anonymous source. Various other people were saying that X was not, in fact, true. But the journalist was standing firm. I then asked her whether she was standing firm on the statement “X, says Y”, which she reported — or whether she was standing firm on the statement that X. And here’s the thing that struck me: it took her a long time to even understand the distinction. A lot of American journalists stick the sourcing in there because they have to — but they very much consider themselves to be reporting news, and if X turned out not to be true, they would never consider their story to be correct, even if it were true that Y had indeed said that X.

Elsewhere, however, those conventions don’t hold. In a lot of political reporting, you have one person saying “X”, and another person saying “not-X”, and it’s left to the reader to decide whether one or the other or neither is telling the truth. And even facts can end up being attributed to people, which is even more confusing. Consider this, for instance, from a recent NYT article by Motoko Rich:

The home ownership rate has been falling from its peak of 69.4 percent in 2004, according to census data. By the fourth quarter of 2011, it was down to 66 percent. That means about two million more households are renting, said Kenneth Rosen, an economist and professor of real estate at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley.

This is Rosen’s only appearance in the article, and he’s not being used to give an opinion, or an expert analysis: he’s being used to count rental households. And, at least on the face of things, he’s not particularly good at that. According to the 2010 census summary, there are 116,716,292 occupied housing units in America. So a basic back-of-the-envelope calculation would say that if the proportion of those units which went from owner-occupied to rented moved from 69.4% to 66%, then the increase in rental households would be 3.4% of 116,716,292, which comes to almost exactly 4 million. That’s double Rosen’s number.

Or, we can get more accurate, and go back to the 2005 American Community Survey, which showed 36,771,635 renter-occupied housing units in total. Contrast that with 2010, where there were 40,730,218 renter-occupied housing units. The difference, again, is almost exactly 4 million.

Most accurately of all, you can look directly at the Census Bureau’s quarterly estimates of the US housing inventory. According to that series, the number of renter-occupied houses in the US was 32,913,000 in the second quarter of 2004; it’s now 38,771,000. The difference there is not 2 million or 4 million but rather 5.9 million. (In the same time, the number of owner-occupied households has increased by 1.2 million.)

Now Rosen may or may not have good reason to believe that in fact the real increase in renting households is only 2 million rather than 4 million or 6 million. But if he does, that reason is not the drop in the homeownership rate from 69.4% to 66%. Not given the number of households in this country. (The homeownership data is here, by the way; it’s worth noting that Rich didn’t link to it.)

All of which housing wonkery is to say that even basic facts like the increase in US rental households can be non-trivial to pin down, and that both Rich and her readers would probably have been better off if she hadn’t bothered phoning Rosen at all, and had just got her numbers for the increase in rental households directly from the people measuring such things. Citing sources doesn’t help the reader at all, here: if Rich had been forced to assert the increase in rental households, rather than simply attributing the number to Rosen, then she would probably have got something closer to the truth.

The difference between linking and citing is the difference between showing and telling. I’m not a big fan of citing, mainly because it gets in the way: we might learn a lot about where the Haas School of Business might be, but at the same time we’ll learn nothing useful about the increase in the number of rental households. On the other hand, if Rich had simply said that “about six million more households are renting”, complete with hyperlink, that would have been shorter, more useful, and more accurate, even if there were no explicit citation.

Similarly, there’s a case to be made that Vascellaro could and should simply have put out a one-line story under the exact same headline (“Apple Acquires App-Search Engine Chomp”), saying “I’ve talked to Apple and they confirm this story is true.” Vascellaro had exactly one new piece of information: Apple’s confirmation of the news. In a world where TechCrunch is only a click away, why write out a lazy rehash of what Siegler had already written, rather than just linking to his story and moving on to breaking and writing something more interesting?

One reason is that the WSJ still has a hugely successful print product, and that therefore WSJ journalists’ pieces need to work in print as well as online. What’s more, as people increasingly read WSJ.com stories offline, on things like the WSJ iPad app, the need for those stories to be reasonably comprehensive remains. Even in the age of the hyperlink. Here’s Stray:

Rewriting is required for print, where copyright prevents direct use of someone else’s words. Online, no such waste is necessary: A link is a magnificently efficient way for a journalist to pass a good story to the audience.

The problem is that a journalist never really knows whether their work is going to be read online or offline, even if they’re writing solely for the web. The story might get downloaded into an RSS reader, to be consumed offline. It might be emailed to someone with a Blackberry who can’t possibly be expected to open a hyperlink in a web browser. It might even get printed out and read that way.

Besides, the simple fact is that even if people can follow links, most of the time they don’t. An art of writing online is to link to everything, but to still make your piece self-contained enough that it makes sense even if your reader clicks on no links at all. Cryptic sentences which make no sense until you click on them are arch and annoying.

What’s more, as Stray says, “online writing needs to be shorter, sharper, and snappier than print”; his link will take you to Michael Kinsley, moaning about how “newspaper stories are written to accommodate readers who have just emerged from a coma or a coal mine”. In that context, does it really behoove reporters to build a long list of sources into all of their stories? Does every news story need to link to the organization which first broke the news? Does every journalist need to hat-tip the friend of theirs who retweeted the nugget which ultimately resulted in their story?

My feeling is that commodity news is a commodity: facts are in the public domain, and don’t belong to anybody. If you’re mentioning a fact which you sourced in a certain place, then it’s a great idea to link to that place. And if you’re matching a story which some other news organization got first, it’s friendly and polite to mention that fact in your piece, while linking to their story. But it’s always your reader who should be top of mind — and the fact is that readers almost never care who got the scoop.

There’s one big exception to that rule, however. Often, a reporter spends a long time getting a big and important scoop, which comes in the form of a long and deeply-reported story. When other news organizations cover that news, they really do have to link to the original story — the place which did it best. Otherwise, they shortchange their readers. A prime example came last August, with Matt Taibbi’s 5,000-word exposé of the SEC’s document-shredding. Anybody covering that story without linking to Taibbi was doing their readers a disservice.

As a result, like most things online, it’s very dangerous to try to come up with hard-and-fast rules about such things. In general, it’s good to link to as many different people and sources as possible, because the more links you have, the richer your story is. On the other hand, the journalistic web is full of garbage hyperlinks — automated links to irrelevant topic pages, for instance, or links to an organization’s home page when that organization is first mentioned.

As for crediting the news organization which broke some piece of news, that’s more of a journalistic convention than a necessary service to readers. It’s important enough within the journalism world, at least in the US, that it’s probably a good idea to do it when you can. But most of the time it’s pretty inside-baseball stuff. And in the pantheon of journalistic sins, failing to do it is not a particularly big deal. What’s much more important is that your reader get as much information as possible, as efficiently as possible. Which means that if you’re writing about a document or report, you link to that document or report. Failure to do that is a much greater sin than failure to link to some other journalist.

So while sometimes the failure to link is unavoidable, I look forward to a time when journalists face much more criticism for not linking to primary documents than they do for not linking to some other news organization which got the news first.

14 comments

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I agree that saying who broke the story first is a bit of an insular media world thing. But referencing facts in your article is a much better idea. For example, have you seen George Monbiot’s site? He references everything he can on his own site, for example the most reason article for the Guardian:

http://www.monbiot.com/2012/02/20/plutoc racy-pure-and-simple/

He also lists all of his monetary interests:

http://www.monbiot.com/registry-of-inter ests/

Posted by Sciolist | Report as abusive

Great piece! Nothing annoys me more as a reader than to read a journalists interpretation of a document and not being permitted to read the source data.

Posted by Sechel | Report as abusive

Blind links waste my time and frustrate me though. I know it makes the story longer, but I’d prefer to be told what the link is to rather than having to click on it to find out.

Posted by tincanman2010 | Report as abusive

I then asked her whether she was standing firm on the statement “X, says Y”, which she reported — or whether she was standing firm on the statement that X. And here’s the thing that struck me: it took her a long time to even understand the distinction.

Yes. This is a telling moment. I think you’re overlooking something about why that happens. Well, not overlooking it, really; it’s just folded into your phrase: CYA. Here’s what I mean: Some sourcing has nothing to do with transparency, with informing the users, with showing your work or building trust or even reporting the news.

Rather, it serves an unannounced and not always conscious agenda: the production of newsroom innocence. As in, we’re not saying this, Mr. Y is saying it. This trick doesn’t actually work, in the sense that readers finding a false fact in your news account will probably fault you for it, whether you attributed it or not. In the real world, if Mr. Y is wrong, your story is wrong. Bur the production of innocence doesn’t care about that. Because the product is an internal one. It makes the newswriter feel more innocent. Social scientists would say it’s a ritual that provides “psychic rewards.”

By posing your question, “are you standing firm on the statement or the fact that he said it?” you were messing with that feeling of innocence. This causes confusion.

Posted by jayrosen | Report as abusive

I agree there are two different things being talked about:

- whether to link to whoever broke the story
- linking as sourcing

I’m going to tackle only the second idea here.

Perhaps it used to be that “the WSJ said it” was good enough. Considering the well-documented decline in trust of news media, it may not be good enough now. I don’t think it’s good enough.

Now of course there are cases where the reader really must rely on the credibility of the journalist. Anonymous sources, and moments where the journalist is a first-hand witness to events that were not otherwise recorded come to mind. But asking the readers to “just trust us” is like pulling rank: while it’s always at least a formal possibility, you want to do it as little as possible because it spends social capital.

This “show don’t tell” ideal is deeply developed in other fields, such as scholarship (citations), science (detailed methodology, original data), and online security (a good system is one which relies on trusting as few actors as possible.)

When I say “all statements need to be attributed,” I am suggesting that this ideal apply to journalism as well.

Regarding your “are you stating X or, or stating that Y says X” point: the clearest thinking I’ve seen on this topic comes from logicians, AI practitioners, and intelligence analysts. In these fields, it’s standard to say that “there are no facts, only assertions.” The question of “according to who?” is deeply embedded in the idea of an assertion; IMHO what journalists are really in the business of doing is assembling evidence, not facts. If that’s the case, I want to see the evidence, when at all possible.

To make a long story short, I believe that users are willing to grant us journalists a certain amount of trust — but only a certain amount. We shouldn’t abuse that by asking them to trust us any more than is strictly necessary.

Posted by JonathanStray | Report as abusive

“The story might get downloaded into an RSS reader, to be consumed offline. It might be emailed to someone with a Blackberry who can’t possibly be expected to open a hyperlink in a web browser. It might even get printed out and read that way.”

Yes, but I argue that the first two of those examples demonstrate failures of our technology that are rapidly being fixed, while printing it out is going to become increasingly rare — as we take better advantage of the online medium, print is going to look worse and worse.

In other words, should the traditional journalism industry really be arguing for backwards compatibility when there are online-only news outlets that don’t have to?

Posted by JonathanStray | Report as abusive

Funny you should write on that, Felix…

On Saturday I ran across an article titled, “A steep roof over their heads — Housing is taking bigger bite of income”

Seems that “nearly a quarter of working households…spend more than half their income on housing”. Typically of newspaper journalism, this is a report on a report. Yet the link to the original report was NOT provided in or around the article.

As a result, the writer successfully buried a key qualification in the last sentence of the seventh paragraph. “The report defines working households as those who work at least 20 hours a week and earn no more than 120 percent of the area median income.” It omitted an additional clarification, that only 1/3 of the households in the US are “working households” by this definition.

The original “study” was clearly designed to generate shocking headlines, raising sympathy points for a certain political position. By failing to prominently note the qualifications (which are front-page sidebar on the original report), the journalist here played the dupe.

Lies, damn lies, statistics, and journalists… Bad mix.

Posted by TFF | Report as abusive

There’s another angle that I think worth discussing, although I’ll ask to not be held accountable for possible ad homonym attacking: MG Siegler is NOT a disinterested journalist.

By announcing a piece of material, non-public information without attribution, he is abetting his source in disclosing news that would potentially impact his employer’s investments, Chomp cperitors’ prospects for a buyout, Apple’s business prospects, etc. (I’ll note that I speculated, entirely without indicating any investment implications, about better business approaches on the blog of a VC fund guru, only days before the Chomp news broke. It would be disingenuous to claim that the topic was without investment implications.) And yet MG broke the story without any particular concern for normal concerns of Reg FD or other concerns.

In that sense, failure to link to irresponsible news leaks could be seen as a professional courtesy, not drawing attention to somebody out of his depth in blending investment advocacy and journalism.

Posted by WaltFrench | Report as abusive

(Apologies for auto-corrections that garbled my discussion of MG’s dual role of reporter and promoter.)

Posted by WaltFrench | Report as abusive

I think every story needs a source. A GOOD source. In my opinion, “We’ve learned” does not qualify as good sourcing. Mr. Siegler’s assertion that he covered the takeover “as a fact for good reason — It. Was. A. Fact” sounds extremely arrogant: “How dare you doubt me?!”
As a reader, if you report something important, such as “Co. A buys Co. B,” I want to know where the info came from. If it’s an official announcement, say so (and yes, please add a link!). If it’s not, then I would expect you to provide as much info about that source as possible. Did the source ask not to be identified? Say so. That the source is “familiar with the situation” is no good either—nobody would do a story based on hearsay, right?
I think reporters should negotiate with their sources. Talk them into sense. Make them see that readers deserve to know that the info is reliable—
Was the source someone senior from Co. A? From Co. B?
Did you actually see the acquisition documents? Say so. Was it a copy of said docs? Say it, and explain why you have reason to fully trust it was legit. Did someone you absolutely trust see the docs? etc. Transparency will add to your credibility.
As for the CYA thing—I don’t think that’s even possible. If a reporter swallows the bait or otherwise believes his/her source’s lies or blunders, that’s bad reporting, period.
Only exception is if the source is someone important speaking on the record: “Sen. Smith said Co. A has purchased Co. B”. If that turns out to be wrong, then Sen. Smith, not the reporter, is in big trouble.
Finally, I believe every story should be self-contained. Regardless of whether the reader is on or off line, he/she may simply not want to spend a lifetime clicking back and forth to learn what’s going on.

Posted by DaveinBA | Report as abusive

The WSJ is under no obligation to say who broke the news first, once it confirms a story. MG Siegler should calm down. Sure, it would be nice for him if the newspaper credited him, but that’s the game. Once it’s out there, other news outlets can confirm it and report it as their own. This happens every day, all over America.

Posted by adambelz | Report as abusive

If markets are a conversation, then journalism is really a conversation. Barring deeply researched investigative stuff, every story occurs in the context of other stories. Linking to them is the only way to help the reader understand the conversation. When someone moves the conversation, failure to acknowledge them can be almost plagiarism, making it seem like you’re the one with the scoop. It happens a lot.

Posted by streeteye | Report as abusive

many problems could be avoided altogether if journalists remembered that the basic function of their job is to report. i am not surprised that far too many people have developed a blanket distrust of the news as reported; i think many realize instinctually that the article is not giving them the facts but a view that is filtered through the journo’s sensibilities.

reporting means stating facts, not speculating. when i assigned reporters to events i reminded them that “if it happens you report it” without embroidery. you also don’t leave anything out. because of the proliferation of talking heads it seems every journo thinks s/he is an analyst, a commentator, an interpreter.

too few journos nowadays think “reporter” has sufficient cachet and consequently fantasize themselves into a role where they overstep the bounds. in fact, the ability to separate and clearly present just the facts is more difficult than spewing one’s opinion – with the facts added for the sake of plausibility.

Posted by bluemlein | Report as abusive