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Attribution and linking in online journalism

November 4, 2010 4 comments

[1] P. Clarke quoted in D. Cannadine, ‘Apocalypse When? British politicians and British “decline” in the twentieth century’ in P. Clarke and C. Trebilcock (eds.), Understanding decline: perceptions and realities of British economic performance, (Cambridge, 1997), 263

Learning transparency and attribution

One of the best, most revolutionary things about the internet as a place to do journalism is of course the ability to link. Linking connects users to other interesting places and people around the world, it makes available a plethora of evidence, information, commentary and conversation, and all at the click of button. As Mitch Joel has argued, content is an organic linking process.

But what it also does is provide an extremely efficient and attractive way of referencing other writers’ material.

At the top of this post is a footnote taken from my undergraduate dissertation. One thing a degree in History teaches you is the importance of referencing other writers’ work whenever you are discussing an idea or quotation gleaned from reading it. Even with primary source material, such as the newspapers from 1899 and 1900 with which I worked, it is necessary to reference the exact example down to the page, even the column.

Doing so justifies your argument and gives the reader the essential opportunity to check what you are saying. Whether the sources you say you have used are correct, and whether the conclusions you have drawn from them are justified. It is the writer being open about their sources and information, saying: “if you don’t believe me, go and see for yourself.”

I gradually learned the importance of this practice in lending work rigour and meaningfulness. Without references, history writing is mere assertion, and of little value to broader debate. So with journalism.

Footnotes v. Links – what can we learn?

The problem with the traditional hard copy history I dealt in (essays were not submitted electronically) is that footnoting can take up a huge amount of space. It also takes more time than normal people want to give to it. In the world of online journalism, footnoting of this kind now looks an absurd and spectacularly inefficient way to conduct attribution. It’s not only that my example above takes up three lines of text in my footnotes. It’s also that actually making use of the information it provides would require the reader to follow the directions, locate a copy of the relevant book or journal in a library, shop, database or other depository, before travelling, paying or searching in order to access it.

Linking online is an ingenious form of attribution.

Linking allows instant access to the referenced material while taking up no extra space in your text. It enables us to bring scholarly levels of transparency into journalism.  It is perhaps our great luck to be part of a generation who can reference sources and direct readers to other interesting and informative places at the twitch of a mouse, making ourselves more useful than ever, and engaging with people more deeply. Internet inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee said of linking: “On the web, to make reference without making a link is possible but ineffective – like speaking but with a paper bag over your head.” By placing our work in this deepened context, we can make our writing more meaningful and more valuable.

Journalism without instant attribution? That, surely, is history.

* * * * *

Check out the Nieman Journalism Lab on linkng (one link to it is already given above) and Jeff Jarvis on the merits that links bring to our work.

It’s also worth making use of Paul Bradshaw’s Delicious page for lots of useful articles on linking.

Anyone got examples of bad non-attribution by major  newspapers online?

Can the significance of linking be overdone, particularly in certain types of journalism?

Perhaps you have had even more cumbersome referencing standards placed on you in your academic experience?

Do journalists and academics need to attribute sources in the same way?

Feel free to post any links to interesting writing about linking.



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