Despite having just rolled my eyes at The Cluetrain Manifesto (which even I’d signed back when I’d been describing myself as a “guerilla techno-fetishist”), one of their 95 thesis still rings true: “Hyperlinks subvert hierarchy.” They remain the heart of the web, although not necessarily the heart of the current social web.
Enter this great Motherboard look by Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai and Jason Koebler at The New York Times’ peculiar reticence to link, or even credit at all, stories broken by other outlets.
Angry journalists regularly tweet (and sometimes write) about the bizarre practice, which comes up all the time. For instance, the Times recently wrote about how Kickstarter is unionizing. This was an important piece about an important topic; the main problem with it was that Slate’s April Glaser wrote an in-depth investigation breaking news about the exact same topic a month earlier, to which the Times didn’t bother linking until after Glaser publicly criticized them for not doing so.
This week it was Slate (and BuzzFeed); at other times it’s been the Guardian and Gawker; several times, it’s been VICE. It goes on and on, with the Times running stories that other people already have and not acknowledging them for seemingly no better reason than the paper’s institutional belief that a thing does not exist until the paper has deemed it noteworthy.
Franceschi-Bicchierai and Koebler relate an internal Times memo by Phil Corbett, the paper’s standards editor, back in January. In it, Corbett offers a pretty solid defense of linking: not only will readers “value a signpost to others’ reporting”, they will come to value the Times as a source of such signposts.
Hyperlinks are context. (You can find more about the degradation and devaluation of context buried in this site search.) If journalism’s “first obligation is to the truth” and its “first loyalty is to citizens”, surely providing readers with context not only is a valuable part of that but a required one.
In the early days of blogging, Rebecca Blood posited some blogger ethics including the idea that “if material exists online, link to it when you reference it”. A sort of necessary precondition here is that you should reference existing material. This perhaps especially is true in journalism if another outlet already has been publishing on a story yours is covering.
Just recently, I learned about Grey’s law: “Any sufficiently advanced incompetence is indistinguishable from malice.” If it’s true, as Franceschi-Bicchierai and Koebler report, that “getting constantly dragged on Twitter by competitors for not linking is a common source of stress for many reporters”, the solution if for the Times to be neither incompetent nor malicious in its rush to get its stories to print.