The Ethics of Linking

via GigaOM:

Late last week, TechCrunch writer MG Siegler broke the news that Apple was buying an app-discovery service called Chomp — although he didn’t say where that news came from, just that it was a reliable source. The Wall Street Journa l reported the same news several hours later, confirmed by an Apple source, but didn’t link to Siegler, who then wrote a profanity-laced tirade criticizing the WSJ for its failure to include a link to him in its story.

A flurry of debate ensued, along with an especially interesting piece from Felix Salmon, who raised some interesting questions.

When reporting a story, should news outlets have an obligation to say who first broke the news?

FJP: A hat tip is always polite, even if the extra information doesn’t always interest the reader. 

Q: Should news outlets link to outside sources in a story?

FJP: Primary sources? That would be wonderful. Secondary sources? A bit more complicated. Last year, the folks over at Nieman wrote about the purpose and value of linking. Still relevant reading if you haven’t checked it out. It’s a layered argument that Salmon breaks down well. On the one hand, why write out a lazy rehash of a story, when just linking to it allows you to move on and break or write something more interesting? Most bloggers do it, so why don’t big news networks? Enter here: the print vs. web issue. For starters, a publication like the WSJ still has a healthy print product, so pieces have to work both online and in print. Salmon explains:

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 e-mailed 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.

Q: What is fact? a) that X happened? or b) that a source said X happened?

FJP: The most interesting question of all. Salmon offers a scenario:

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.

This isn’t always the case, though. Facts do get attributed to people and Salmon goes on to explain how. So this brings us back to hyperlinks. Primary sources ought to be linked to and secondary sources too. At least this way readers have a chance to make informed judgments on what to believe.

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    very intriguing topic, ongoing debate.
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