Direct Source Links in Online News: Whether, Where, and How?

One way I like to use Google News is to quickly compare how different news venues cover the same story. This morning I did that with coverage of the newly released final report from the White House Commission of the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction.

Here’s the thing: When a news story hinges on a document that’s available online, where is the the best place (and what is the best way) to present that link in an online news story? Are source links even necessary or desirable?

There are various ways to approach this quandary…

With this particular story, some news organizations opted not to include any link (direct or indirect) from the news story to the report (i.e., Reuters via ABC News, Bloomberg, and even Aljazeera).

Others took the indirect approach – they first linked from the news story to related backgrounders or stories on their own site. Some of these included direct links to the report (i.e., CNN).

Some provided a direct link at the very bottom of the story (i.e., AP via SFgate.com).

MY ADVICE: PUT THE LINK RIGHT UP TOP

Personally, I favor including a direct link to the source document right up top, next to or just below the headline and byline (i.e., the Guardian and the Globe and Mail). Be obvious about it. Don’t bury it in the page, or camouflage it with clutter.

Such a straightforward positioning strategy not only serves readers who are naturally curious – it actively encourages personal exploration and involvement in the news. It encourages news audiences to ask their own questions, to do their own research, and to form their own opinions. It indicates that the news organization is a part of, and partner in, people’s efforts to understand their world.

It’s the opposite of the relatively dictatorial approach to news that was so common in the 20th century – where the implicit message was: “We’re telling you everything you need to know. You’re not qualified to investigate further. Don’t bother. Just listen to us.”

In short, presenting direct source links right up top is an easy, subtle, practical way to generate a whole lot of public goodwill. As the media market continues to splinter, the strength of public goodwill will likely make or break many currently established news organizations.

Smart news organizations will shift their mindsets, processes, and presentations to provide much more than prepackaged stories or detailed cul-de-sacs. They’ll provide direct access and guidance. They’ll stop talking down to their audiences, and start treating them as partners in exploration.

3 thoughts on Direct Source Links in Online News: Whether, Where, and How?

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  1. Amy,

    In your arguing for the inclusion of source links in referencing articles, you said that doing so: “actively encourages personal exploration and involvement in the news. It encourages news audiences to ask their own questions, to do their own research, and to form their own opinions. It indicates that the news organization is a part of, and partner in, people’s efforts to understand their world. It’s the opposite of the relatively dictatorial approach to news that was so common in the 20th century – where the implicit message was: “We’re telling you everything you need to know. You’re not qualified to investigate further. Don’t bother. Just listen to us.â€?

    Do you believe (and better, have data supporting the notion) that the news viewer audience responds positively to such encouragement? In other words, aside from the ethical and moral imperatives that may be involved, does doing what you say actually increase traffic?

    Regards,

    Terry

    PS: I can think of all sorts of reasons why it should or could be appealing and hence increase traffic. I just don’t know if it really does.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Terry.

    In answer to your question: Nope, I don’t have supporting data right now. It may exist, I just haven’t searched for it. I’ll do so, but I’m on deadline today.

    However, I do know that in just about everything I’ve seen and read about why the internet has gotten so popular, a big reason given is that net users like to explore and get information first-hand. This is, in part, why print and broadcast news media audiences are steadily declining.

    Therefore, checking studies on either side of the issue (why people turn to the internet, and why print/broadcast audiences are declining) should yield some support.

    Personally, I distrust most media- and communication-related studies because it’s possible to generate data about such fuzzy, interrelated topics to “prove” anything you want. It’s not like doing chemistry experiments. But I understand why business executives who make the money decisions crave studies and statistics. I just doubt they’re getting the value they assume they’re getting from “hard numbers.”

    The largest media, credibility, perception, and loyalty issues rarely take a straight cause-effect line, in my experience. Trends in communication arise in a more cumulative, integrative, social, indirect way. I think the more the media business starts making decisions on that basis, than on short-sighted statistical claims, the better positioned it will be to survive in the internet age.

    – Amy Gahran
    Editor, CONTENTIOUS

  3. Amy,

    As you do your research, here are a couple of additional perspectives that you might want to keep in mind.

    First, I think people are overwhelmed with the variety and volume of Internet news, and that, in desperation, many of them seek out sources that provide some filtering to throttle things down. (Many of these filtering sources are actually blogs that filter – topically *and* philosophically – and add commentary.)

    Second, even if they can cope OK with the volume of news, I think online news viewers are often frustrated with lack of available depth, in that when they do encounter an article of interest to them, it’s simply too difficult to get more depth/background. Similarly, all of us have experienced times when we finally notice an interesting topic that we’ve not paid attention to in the past, but now that our interest has been sparked, we can’t find any quick way to get up to speed. (Here again, blogs may benefit because, by their nature, they have a “memory” that many viewers may find rather useful.)

    Third, the behavior of online news viewers that I’ve speculated on above, may be driven by a desire to, somehow, get a better feeling of being in control of events that are swirling around their lives. If so, this might also help explain the popularity of search engines in searching for news (although, IMHO, what the typical user gets from search engines isn’t really very close to what they’re really searching for – but it often seems like it is).

    Terry