HuffPost’s citizen journalism standards: links required (News orgs, take a hint)

huffpostLast week the Huffington Post posted its standards for citizen journalism. It’s a pretty short, basic list — just six requirements — that reads like journalism 101.

However, many news organizations still could take a lesson from the second item on HuffPost‘s list:

2. Do research and include links to back it up. Whether you are referencing a quote, statistic, or specific event, you should include a link that supports your statement. If you’re not sure, it’s better to lean on the cautious side. More links enhance the piece and let readers know where you’re coming from.”

It amazes me how often I still see mainstream news stories which completely lack links, or which ghettoize links in a box in a sidebar or at the bottom of the story…

In online media, links enhance credibility and invite engagement. Yet many (perhaps most) major news organizations (including the Associated Press, Wall St. Journal, and USA Today) still include few or no outbound links to sources or context from their stories.

I know from speaking to many, many journalists that in some news organizations, outdated print- or broadcast-focused content management systems make it cumbersome for reporters to add links to stories. In other cases, reporters either don’t know how to add links, or don’t bother to do so. And in a few cases, editors still actively discourage reporters from adding links to stories due to mistaken ideas about what drives online traffic and demonstrates value to readers.

Look at this from the perspective of the community you’re trying to engage online: Dead ends are bad news on the internet. A story without source or context links (especially obvious ones) may appear suspect, as if the news org hopes to discourage independent followup. Yes, it’s a good idea to link to your own related stories — but if you only link to your own news from your own news, you risk looking like an echo chamber. The more value you offer (which includes useful external links), the more likely it is that your online news will attract repeat traffic, inbound links, and personal referrals.

Of course, links are not everything. It’s true that original research (including interviewing) still matters in journalism. It’s also true that not every fact reported has an online link for reference. That said, much (perhaps most) of the information and context that journalists gather and assemble into most stories does indeed have some sort of primary online reference.

Avoiding those links implies hubris (the impression that the news organization is pretending to be the original source/gatherer of all the information presented), laziness (the news org couldn’t be bothered to link), or cluelessness (the news org doesn’t recognize the value of links).

Also, when linking to sources of context, quality counts. I’d have preferred it if HuffPost had stated a preference for links to primary sources, and qualification for any link that is not a primary source. But still — when soliciting news and reporting from amateur journalists, this list is an adequate starting point.

(NOTE: I originally published another version of this article in Poynter’s E-Media Tidbits.)

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