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Transparency in Journalism

Over at the Guardian, science columnist Ben Goldacre asks an interesting question: Why don’t more journalists link to primary sources?

If we had a culture of linking to primary sources, if they were a click away, then any sensible journalist would be too embarrassed to see this article go online. Distortions like this [an exaggerated and since retracted Telegraph story about whales and offshore wind farms] are only possible, or plausible, or worth risking, in an environment where the reader is actively deprived of information.

I suspect there are a bunch of answers to this question. First off, within mainstream media outlets there still seems to be a general lack of linking to things, which I suspect has something to do with publications being afraid people won’t find their way back (which they always do). But more specifcally, I wonder if it’s because journalists are constantly being asked to publish new things, and even when they’re writing about something that exists (as in a journal article that’s been read by a few dozen people), it could make it seem like old news. Or, of course, there’s the cynical take, which is simply that there is worry that exposing sources would expose shoddy reporting.

Goldacre also has an interesting view on the difference between linking practices between bloggers and journalists: “There’s also an interesting difference between different media: most bloggers have no institutional credibility, so they must build it by linking transparently and allowing you to double-check their work easily.”

As an aside, it would be even more amazing if journalists linked to press releases in their stories. That would probably have a bigger impact on writing than the research linking would.

[via Colin Nagy]

March 20, 2011


  • Greg Brown says:

    Felix Salmon semi-regularly bangs this drum too.

  • Jon says:

    I wonder how many so-called mainstream journalists realize how much credibility they lose by not linking to sources?

    Before the internet, when researching anything, I always made use of this thing in credible print publications, sometimes called a bibliography. I learned to ‘trust’ only the original sources of information, and to read journalistic commentary as what it was: Paid Commentary.

    The folks today paying for that commentary on the MSM sites apparently have a stake in making certain no sources are revealed. Good journalism requires that the sources are transparent. Great journalism demands it.

    Hence the success of blogs like this one.

  • Max Kalehoff says:

    I would argue it has more to do with an old-school corporate mentality where the website is seen more as a walled destination of final say. It’s less so because journalists have any conscious tendency to avoid linking. But when you have the former, it creates a culture that subvertly promotes the latter.

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