I must correct, or expand upon, something I posted earlier today. In writing about an absurd correction in the New York Times, I wrote that the Times “certainly doesn’t require linking to digital sources of information.”
Whether I was correct depends upon your definition of the word require. If it means that you have a policy encouraging links in some situations and making them mandatory in others, the Times requires links. But if require means staff members actually practice that policy, the Times falls short.
Patrick LaForge, Editor for News Presentation at the Times, sent me the following passage from the New York Times Stylebook:
Link is acceptable in reference to a hyperlink on the web. If an article refers to material of interest to readers, such as a website, document, image or video, provide an embedded link as a convenience. Readers also value links to background information and other useful content. When crediting a competitor, providing a link is mandatory.
That’s the first part of a longer entry on links. For context, I’ll post the rest at the end of this post.
That’s a better policy than most, but it’s not strong enough. It doesn’t address linking as a matter of ethics, just as a “convenience” and “value” to readers. The only mandatory part is linking to competitors, which I applaud, since news organizations are shamefully reluctant to do that. And linking should be addressed in ethics codes and policies, not just stylebooks.
While I was a little encouraged to learn of the stylebook entry, I quickly started thinking about Times stories I’ve read and it seemed to me that I’ve read a lot of them with very few, if any, links. So I decided to check whether the Times actually links to “material of interest to readers” or to “background information or other useful content.”
I should note that the first Times piece I read today was David Carr’s column about Bill Cosby’s “media enablers” (outstanding piece; I highly recommend it and reshared it on Facebook). Carr gets linking. The piece is loaded with nearly 20 links, mostly to various media pieces about Cosby. The linked stories provide incredible depth and context to Carr’s column, if you want to know more about the media’s fawning over Cosby and the recent implosion of his image. They give the piece credibility, since you know you can click on those links to check whether Carr has quoted or cited them accurately.
But that’s not the standard Times practice. The Joyce Wadler column, which needed the embarrassing correction I blogged about yesterday, included two links to Times topics pages and two links to Jose Canseco tweets, but not links to other sources.
And some stories have no links. On today’s home page, I found a Deborah Sontag story about oil and politics mixing in North Dakota. I used to live in North Dakota, in Minot, right in the heart of what has since become oil country. So I dug in on the story with interest.
When I told LaForge I was going to examine this story, he said: “The entry speaks for itself. But we’re not perfect. We need to do a better job of following our standards with consistency.”
The story is long. It’s a multimedia story with text that I can’t easily cut and paste into a Word document to count the words, but the last of seven sections is more than 600 words long. It’s at least 3,000 words, maybe 4-5K. (Update: Dylan Smith tells me it’s 5,700 words.) And it doesn’t include a single link. Now, some stories are based entirely on in-person interviews and digging through old hard-copy files. Even those stories could probably link to helpful background material, as the Times policy urges.
But this story is not based simply on interviews and hard-copy archives. The reporter clearly did extensive research using digital sources and didn’t link to a single one. I counted at least 10 mentions of filings or rulings in courts or regulatory agencies that are probably available online. If the Times couldn’t link to the actual filings or rulings, it could easily link to news accounts of them.
A sampling of other passages that cry for links:
… fastest-growing economy, lowest unemployment rate and (according to one survey) happiest population.
You need three links here, unless you’re just spouting the governor’s boasts. Did the reporter check the economic superlatives? Then link to them. And clearly the reporter is aware of the Gallup Poll ranking North Dakota has the nation’s happiest population.
But Tioga also claims another record: what is considered the largest on-land oil spill in recent American history.
I bet there was some news coverage of that oil spill (“is considered” kinda indicates the reporter might have read that somewhere). Yep, you don’t even need to link to competition here. The Times covered it.
Proposals to drill near historic places generated heated opposition. The giant oil spill in Tioga in September 2013 frightened people, as did the explosion months later of a derailed oil train, which sent black smoke mushrooming over a snowy plain.
Lots of link opportunities here. I bet the reporter read some local media reports about that heated opposition. We’ve already covered the oil spill, but I bet the train derailment was covered, too. Yep, lots of choices here: Link to the LA Times, USA Today, NBC News or one of the other many accounts of the derailment.
His family homestead lay in the remote region where Theodore Roosevelt sought solitude in what he called the “desolate, grim beauty” of the Badlands.
Pretty sure that one didn’t come from an interview with Teddy. Anyway, it was easy to find a link to that quote.
Therefore, Mr. Thompson concluded in a legal analysis posted on the blog NorthDecoder.com, Mr. Dalrymple, in the case of the mega-unit, had taken bribes.
Seriously, the Times story used the URL of the blog, but didn’t link to the actual post. Here’s a tip to all journalists: When you are typing a URL in a story, that’s a good time to add a hyperlink (to the specific entry, not the home page).
His state biography says he grew up “on the family farm in Casselton,” N.D.
Oh, you mean this state biography?
While lieutenant governor, he championed the cooperative’s conversion to an investor-owned firm in which he was a major shareholder, and then oversaw its sale to a Canadian conglomerate, making $3.77 million.
I bet there were news stories on those events.
Many Democrats were incensed when Edward T. Schafer, a Republican former governor, toured the state in an oil industry-sponsored “Fix the Tax” bus in 2011, arguing that oil taxes should be lowered to prevent the boom from going bust. The effort failed; afterward, Mr. Schafer was named to the board of Continental Resources, and awarded a compensation package, mostly stock, valued at $700,000 that year.
Democrats were incensed? Think the local media might have covered that? This whole paragraph is classic parachute-journalism, where a visiting reporter scoops up background reported in the local media and presents it in the narrative without attribution. I guess the Times doesn’t regard North Dakota media as “competition” deserving of a mandatory link, but links to coverage of these events would provide depth and context that some readers would value.
That came across as cavalier to the Rev. Carolyn Philstrom, a young Lutheran pastor, who shot off a letter to the editor of a local newspaper.
Gee, I wonder if that local newspaper has a name or a website. Yes, it’s the Williston Herald, and here’s the letter.
The petroleum industry had resisted, cautioning that “radical environmentalists” would exploit the comment period to obstruct development.
A quote attributed just to an industry. A link would be useful here.
I applaud the Times for encouraging links in its stylebook. But I’ve often said that good ethics don’t come from good rules. They come from conversations about ethical journalism. And the Times and other newsrooms need to talk about why linking is more than just a convenience to readers. It’s the best and most ethical way to attribute to digital sources. And when you link to sources, you’re less vulnerable to errors like the one Wadler made.
I appreciate LaForge’s pointing out the stylebook passage to me and responding to my criticism. I will also invite Carr, Wadler and Sontag to respond to this post and will add any responses I receive.
Here’s the rest of the Times Stylebook policy on links:
Test that all links are operational. While readers understand that The Times does not edit or control material found through external links, be mindful of our taste standards and generally avoid linking to strongly offensive material. Consult the standards editor or the news desk if there are questions. Generally avoid linking directly to the site of a specific seller for products including books, unless the website itself is the topic. Use highlighted tips (which appear when the user hovers over the linked text), especially if linking to material more elaborate than a simple document or website: YouTube video of the speech.; Text of the speech (PDF).
For most references to websites in print, it is not necessary to give the full web address if the link is easily found through online search. Omit prefixes like http:// that are automatically supplied by software; in most cases, www. can also be omitted. Use normal punctuation after an address (a period, for example, if it ends a sentence). Do not add hyphens or other characters that might prevent the address from working online, and use a discretionary break in long addresses in print. When available, use short forms: nytimes.com/world.