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

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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.

43 Responses to “Is linking just polite, or is it a core value of journalism?”

  1. Adam justice

    Tech Crunch did not break that news. Acquisitions made by Apple can be discovered from numerous sources, too many to count or list here. Journalists will never source the type of information you’ve pinpointed here.

    If the information is reliant on another publication’s source, you’d credit them. Now if I source my information from an Apple press release and CNN publishes a story 2 hours later sourced from that same press release, do you expect me to throw a tantrum over it? No, and that is why Tech Crunch is losing readership and reputation badly.

  2. Aaron Bradley

    A big +1 for Marshall’s comment that “failure to link on the WWW is sociopathic,” something with which I strongly agree.

    The only reason that this conversation about linking to sources is taking to place is that news organizations have been slow to understand linking, and that reticence remains institutionalized – both by dint of policy and, often, technology. That is, what’s at the root of this question is not about linking to sources to show provenance, but the link ecosystem in general.

    At the heart of the success of the World Wide Web (as the name suggests) is the link. It allows one to create a web of opinions, resources and references pertaining to a given document.

    As newspapers starting coming up with “digital editions” they by and large failed to recognize this fundamental benefit of the web, because – well, there’s no “links” in print, is there? To this day there are many large newspapers that still fail to link online when a story says something like “as such and such an organization said on their website” or even to website addresses.

    Not linking in news articles where there’s anything to be gained from doing so is not merely impolite, it’s poor journalism.

  3. Chris Skinner

    My two cents: readers don’t care.

    The way I read Matthew’s post here is there are two issues… 1) source linking as good journalism practice and 2) does the lack of linking erode trust. The former has been well debated here already.

    As for trust, readers aren’t keeping track of who in the business is using the secret handshake. Reader trust is built on how correct and complete the information being reported is. If the original source doesn’t contain any additional info (i.e. advances the story), then linking or not linking to it does nothing for reader trust.

    Crediting and linking the original source is good practice, but I wouldn’t justify it by invoking reader trust. Giving credit to who reported it first is journalistic courtesy for the benefit of the original journalist and his/her career. For better or worse, journalism – and even blogging – careers are still often built on scoops and breaking news.

  4. The issue is that certain, usually very well established, sources of news see themselves as THE source that matters. They do not see themselves as parts of the information ecosystem, nor do they see their users as people who want to pick and choose and dig up info for themselves.

    To put it another way, this is the old broadcast model of distribution vs a more modern collaborative model. Personally, I think anyone who tries to follow the old model in today’s world is showing fundamental disrespect for their customers.

    IOW: Stop arguing, start linking.

  5. Andrew Peron

    So if I understand this correctly, Siegler posted an unsubstantiated claim-nay, a rumor, with no named source for the information. And then a few hours later, WSJ posted a story making the same claim, only WSJ had independently confirmed the information AND named the source to their audience. Why do they owe any obligation to credit an ‘article’ or writer that makes an unsubstantiated claim? WSJ did the legwork and research to confirm the rumor, and everyone involved here is making a rather large assumption that WSJ’s reason for running that story in the first place was because of Siegler. The WSJ is well-known for being very favorably aligned with Apple and often is the first to report on Apple news. Why is it so far beyond reason to consider that the WSJ happened upon that information by completely different means? If I’m at a press conference with 10 other journalists representing 10 other news outlets, and a major announcement is made that leads to ABC news posting the story before me, are you telling me that you believe I have an obligation to cite ABC in my article simply because they beat me to the ‘post’ button? Maybe I’m failing to see your argument but it seems to me like Siegler is just throwing a bit of a fit because WSJ had a verified scoop that he didn’t, and if anything, it looks like he’s just mad he didn’t get a bunch of free web traffic off of the WSJ article. Just my two cents.

    • Adam justice

      This is what happened in a nutshell. You’d never expect that link as a journalist, not unless you really broke the news. Apple broke this news, end of discussion. Anything else is a discussion as it pertains to changing journalism to suit the Internet, and that’s fine, but in this case WSJ did what was expected.

  6. Ivan Lajara

    For many, smaller, news organizations, linking still is a somewhat cumbersome added step in publishing, because of outdated CMS. But the added step helps SEO and visibility, as well as credibility, because it shows that you care about giving people as much information as possible. I think the issue is if linking does add value – namely, more information – to the story. Regardless, linking should be part of the workflow, if news organizations want to be OF the web, not just on it. And they better be, their livelihoods depend on it.

  7. As others are saying, if the WSJ got their facts independently, I don’t see why they have to credit anyone. It’s amusing to see Siegler get his panties in a bunch. Someone needs to burst his bubble and let him know that outside the Apple fanboy world he is a non-entity. And respected newspapers like WSJ don’t give two hoots about him.

  8. Christina Warren

    Sadly, I think you’re missing a core part of this debate, which is whether WSJ was already independently on the story or if they were spurred to reach out to Apple after seeing MG’s post. To me, that makes all the difference in this case.

    If I’m already working on a story and someone else happens to hit publish first, I’ll be damned if I’m linking to that place (provided, of course I don’t use anything they said that I didn’t otherwise have) in my piece just because they were first. I had my own sources and my own story, who cares if others wrote about it too.

    In this case, while MG did get the scoop, I’m not convinced that no one at WSJ was already on the ball. Why? Because I got pinged that Apple made an acquisition before MG’s post went live and I didn’t have time to follow up on it. I feel confident I still would have tossed him a link if I did write up the story (we didn’t, we saved it for a news brief), in a sentence like “Mashable has confirmed that Apple acquired Chomp. TechCrunch first reported the purchase…blah blah blah” but by the same token, if I did independent leg work to figure out who was acquired and didn’t use anything from TC for my research, why should I link?

    I’m not sure what the WSJ did in this case. They have a history of not linking to people even when they mention you and your scoop by name (The New York Times often does the same thing. I’ll see my name and a quote of my writing and no link. It is what it is.), and in this case it seems like it would have been nice to acknowledge other leg work.

    Still, they got Apple to go on record. MG didn’t (or didn’t find it necessary to report it that way). That’s not a semantical difference. That is, arguably, a different story. They probably should have linked, but WSJ did their own leg work too.

    Really though, all of this hand-wringing screams of insecurity complexes by new media people who in the same breath say they are the future and “better” than the establishment. If that’s true, why have such a histrionic tantrum? All that does is reinforce the false idea that new media is not as good as the establishment.

    • Thanks, Christina — I obviously don’t know whether the WSJ was working on the Chomp story or not, but a tweet from the writer saying it was “confirmed” when no rumor had been mentioned before suggests that they were confirming the reports that were already out — led by MG’s piece. Anyway, as you mentioned, the WSJ confirmed it and that is worth something — and so is a link. I am not trying to engage in “hand-wringing” about it, I’m trying to establish what I think is appropriate behavior for media in an online world.

    • Charles Arthur

      “I got pinged that Apple made an acquisition before MG’s post went live and I didn’t have time to follow up on it.”

      Chomp and/or its VCs are SO BUSTED.

      “I feel confident I still would have tossed him a link if I did write up the story (we didn’t, we saved it for a news brief)”

      I don’t think I’ve ever seen such an effortless putdown in my life. Chapeau.

  9. Felix posted about this on his Tumblr, and presents a far more comestible argument that the impenetrable Twitter stream above.

    I think it’s disingenuous to argue about ‘core’ values of credit when this was a story that would have been all over the Internet within 4 hours. Yes, MG got a scoop. Only journalists care about ‘scoops’. If MG broke a story (meaning something other than a preview of a press release that would be widely available by the next morning) and wasn’t credited, that would be a far more egregious violation of trust.

    Can’t you take this sort of discussion to Poynter and pout about it there?

  10. Elizabeth Osder

    There is knee jerk “i link therefore i am” linking and thoughtful and valuable linking (transparency, further information, citation). The choice to link from major brands seems to be a subtle or not so subtle economic decision (ugh business vs. journalism in the newsroom oh my) — just to spice up a craft debate what would linking look like if you knew the economic value created or lost by these links (seems google built a nice business on that)- what would choices look like then?

  11. Here is a problem: there are still old-media folks that think that hyperlinking is some sort of Copyright regulated activity. We still hear nonsense about so-called “deep linking” today.

    Someone in that mindset won’t want to link for fear of being liable for royalties (or falsely alleged to be an infringer). We even have Access Copyright here in Canada seeking to charge royalties for link sharing to material, so we know this nonsense thinking is alive and well in Canada.

    While I believe that linking should be a core value of journalism, we have a ways to go to get the lawyers out of the way to being able to do this without the fear mongering that these types of lawyers like to generate.

  12. With all due respect to a long and heated public debate, it’s pretty obvious to any working journalist why their first impulse – if they’re working for traditional media — is to make a story their own or as much their own as possible. That’s what our bosses are paying for! I’ve worked for three major dailies and I can’t see many editors being thrilled to see a story filed that credits other writers with having gotten there before you did; where’s the value you’ve added?

    I am not in any way espousing the notion of stealing others’ work nor evading giving them credit. But insisting on it at all times and in all places ignores how journalism has worked for a very long time. Few ambitious journalists are going to worry more whether others like them than if they are pleasing their employer.

  13. Flux Research

    Linking to sources is an old school blogging tradition that journalists have never consistently followed and bloggers mostly don’t either anymore, especially in competitive fields like tech blogging and hip hop blogging.

    I rarely see major tech blogs link to each other but they write about the same things all the time and it goes beyond stories which grew out of everybody getting the same press release. I know they’re all watching each other yet they rarely name each other as sources.

    Hip hop blogging went through a period where a few of us kept a lot of people in line but it eventually disintegrated when it got too big to be a community.

    But I think it would be great if journalists could be publicly shamed into acknowledging where stories broke. So please keep it up!

  14. Brian S Hall

    I’ve complained publicly about “journalists” not linking back to me and I have to say, this story reeks of “new media” inferiority complex.
    So…a blogger posts a story as soon as he learns about it (true or not). The Wall Street Journal posts essentially the same story but a few hours later — after they’ve confirmed it by the actual company (Apple). Seems to me this isn’t about any silly “should we link or not” notion but yet another example of “old media” actually getting us verifiable truth.
    Short version: 0 points for rushing to say something online you think is correct. +1 for doing the actual leg work, even if it means a shocking 2+ hour time difference.
    Bloggers aren’t journalists and if they’re not going to do the work of journalists shouldn’t demand the same respect.

    • You missed the point entirely. You are saying on one hand that traditional news is journalism because they verify facts, but on the other hand they didn’t generate the news. So which are they fact checkers or news journalists?

      In this era people much closer to the source of news have the ability to come straight out with it. The news is necessarily two tiered. On one side you have bloggers who have an audience that reads their stories and must understand that they are not always fully fact check, and treat it more like rumors or salient facts; on the other side you have large media where they are “slow moving” and come to a story after it broke, and then verify and publish it.

      So the question is when a story breaks, is it necessary to link to the location it broke? I would say from a fact checking, sourcing, and transparency sense it absolutely is. Putting the journalism aspects to the side and looking at the biproduct of journalism, conversation, it is absolutely important to the conversation around the story to link to the site that broke the story.

      • Brian S Hall

        Nope. Go back and re-read my comment. Link to the story if that’s your source. In this case, it was not. WSJ did the real work and told us, the readers, of Apple’s *confirmed* purchase of Chomp. A blogger who says ‘Apple buys Chomp’, a few hours earlier, but offers no evidence (other than their word) is borderline irrelevant — particularly in this case when there’s nothing you or I can do about it (e.g. buy/sell $AAPL on the news, seek another partner). If bloggers want link backs they need to be more than people who rush to post rumors online. This is especially true in the start-up world when being *first* is rarely a guarantee of success.

    • Bruce Apar

      Thank you, Brian Hall, for injecting simple common sense to this thread. The story’s lead graph says the TechCrunch journo “broke the story” based on a reliable source. Why assume the same source didn’t contact the WSJ. It’s not illogical the larger the news org, the longer the lead time to get the story checked and posted. They’re actually responsible, disciplined journalists. Bloggers are … bloggers, which rhymes with blathers — for good reason.

  15. gregorylent

    the “scoop” concept is soooo old-paradigm … based in ego only.

    linking is the reality of now, we are all connected, get used to it.

    but PLEASE, i am so effing TIRED of me-too journalism!! STOP it, NOW!

    me-too journalism is a DISEASE!

    thanks in advance.

  16. Tim Carmody

    Two of Mat’s paraphrases of my position in this conversation are wrong — actually the opposite of what I’ve said. I do not think and never said that “linking is not that big of a deal” or that “linking wasn’t a matter of trust, but simply a feature that some stories might have and others might not.”

    What I said, exactly, is here:!/tcarmody/status/173485006012956673

    “Transparency — true transparency — does more for trust than linking. Linking is a tiny, tiny piece.”

    If that’s not 100% clear, I mean that neither linking nor disclosure are identical with transparency. I also think that transparency isn’t the sine qua non of credibility.

    I’ve written extensively about this, including several dozen tweets about this subject in the past few days that (as noted above) Mat has favorited or retweeted.

    I find this mischaracterization of what I thought was a sincere and open conversation very disappointing.

    • Thanks for the clarification, Tim — and it was a very thoughtful and sincere conversation, which is why I felt compelled to do this in the first place, to Storify it and share it with others who might not have seen it. I’m sorry if I paraphrased your position badly, or misrepresented it in some way — I assure you that wasn’t my intention at all.

      • Jordan Kurzweil

        Transparency rules, and I agree with linking is only a small but required journalistic tactic. Not linking reveals either a. petty modus operandi, or b. anachronistic obliviousness to how the web works and how journalists need to behave in this day and age. I wrote a piece about the print/news industry that appeared on TechCrunch yesterday, and journalistic transparency is one of the most important and easiest things for media companies to engender.

    • Carri Bugbee

      I assume that journalists who have worked in old-school media outlets forever wouldn’t even consider linking, much less consider it a must-do. I imagine their editors would probably strip it out even if they included a link. It’s not terribly common for print publications to credit other print pubs (or broadcast media) for breaking a story, for example.

      Given that, it doesn’t make sense to lambast a single reporter for following long-held procedures. If bloggers and new media journalists want mainstream journalists to adhere to blogging protocols (which are rather new in the grand scheme of things and still evolving), it seems like they’ll need to do a better job of infiltrating and persuading the professional news media that they are also journalists and linking is the new norm.

      Is this a topic regularly discussed at conferences for journalists? Is this covered in text books used in J-schools? Is this a procedure discussed in corporate guidelines for news organizations? Short of that, I can’t imagine this is going to change anytime soon.

      • Marshall Kirkpatrick

        Carri, that’s a really interesting perspective. Surely though the web has now been around for long enough and the importance of linking is clear enough that journalists need to be responsible for figuring this out regardless of what they were taught in school. The web and world are changing fast enough that I would think our learning needs to adapt accordingly. But maybe I’m wrong and change is slower than I and others would like.

      • “I assume that journalists who have worked in old-school media outlets forever wouldn’t even consider linking, much less consider it a must-do.”

        Thanks for not bothering to research the assertion, even though there are tons of “journalists who have worked in old-school media” around on Facebook, Twitter and anywhere. But hey, that’s the difference between just listening your inner prejudice and **finding stuff out**. For info: it varies a lot, but the most important thing for a journalist is to get it right. Personally, I’ve written scripts (I know! Programs!) which will do searches so I can add links in stories. Shocking, eh?