Is linking just polite, or is it a core value of journalism?


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 Journal 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 (we at GigaOM, meanwhile, wrote about why the acquisition made sense for Apple, and credited TechCrunch with breaking the story).

I’ve argued before that I think this failure to link is a crucial mistake that mainstream media outlets make, and also an issue of trust: since the Journal must know that at least some people saw the Siegler post, why not link to it? The only possible reason — apart from simply forgetting to do so — is that the paper would rather try to pretend that it was the first to know this information (and it also apparently has a policy of not linking if a WSJ reporter can independently confirm the news).

Is that the right way to operate online? I would argue that it is not, especially in an environment where trust matters more than so-called “scoops.” I think that is the kind of world we are operating in now, since the half-life of the scoop is so short. But if scoops don’t matter, then why should it matter if the WSJ credits Siegler or not? I think that failure to link decreases the trust readers have, because it suggests (or tries to imply) that the outlet in question came by the information independently when they did not.

On Saturday morning, after I saw someone on Twitter post a link to the Siegler rant again, I advanced my theory that links are more than just the polite thing to do, and here’s a Storify version of the discussion that followed.

Did this discussion solve the question of linking? Not really. But it highlighted for me how much debate there is even within a relatively small group of writers — all of whom are familiar with the web — when it comes to how and when links are required. I still believe that the obsession with “scoops” is misguided, and so is the attempt to pretend that you were the first to report that news when you actually saw it somewhere else, which is what a failure to link feels like. Perhaps many readers won’t care — but that doesn’t mean it isn’t an important principle that is worth upholding.

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