What every journalist needs to know about links

by International Center for Journalists
Oct 30, 2018 in Journalism Basics

Thanks to microblogs and social networks, more journalists are writing online than ever before. Many of them, however, still don't know how important links are for attributing information.

Challenges of Online Writing and Linking

Plagiarism: Taking someone else's work and passing it off as your own is not a new problem in journalism, but its’ been made much easier by the Internet. It's a simple matter to cut and paste content from one website to another, but that doesn't make it ethical. Quotation and attribution of other content is accepted practice in all media. Copying it is not. There are many, many cases where journalists have lost their jobs for just one instance of plagiarism, even when they have argued that it was unintentional.

Spotting unauthorized use: While technology makes it easier to steal, the good news is that technology also offers some new ways of keeping tabs on plagiarists. A simple Google search will often turn up plagiarized material. Copyscape is an online tool that will check for copies of content from any web page. Try it by plugging in the URL of your organization's website and see what you find. Baltimore Sun copy chief John McIntyre has some suggestions for old-fashioned ways to spot plagiarism here.

Attribution via links: Former Washington Post blogger Tammi Marcoullier says there’s a simple antidote to online plagiarism: linking. "When editors value link journalism and communicate to their reporters and writers that including links to their sources and giving credit where credit is due is as important as meeting a deadline, they will provide less incentive for plagiarism," she wrote.

Linking without permission: In the early days of the Internet, website owners often asked for permission to link to another site. That practice has all but disappeared. Linking without permission is considered standard procedure now, as long as you do not mislead readers into thinking that you or your website are the source of the information. If another site's owner objects, the common practice is to remove the link, no questions asked.

Linking to controversial content: A link to an external site does not mean you are endorsing its content. Some news organizations make that clear in their site policies or in a note next to the actual links. The Rochester (N.Y.) Democrat and Chronicle, for example, says in its terms of service, "Our linking to such third-party sites does not imply an endorsement or sponsorship of such sites, or the information, products or services offered on or through the sites." But consider your own standards when linking to outside content and think about warning users about links to controversial content, such as profanity or disturbing photos or video. Some sites may not link to controversial groups, such as hate or terrorist organizations, even if they’re central to a story. Poynter Institute guidelines on the ethics of links are worth exploring.

Linking to commercial content: Some news sites have links to advertising embedded in their news stories, which may raise questions about journalistic independence, even though the links are automated. The American Society of Magazine Editors’ online ethics policy says sites should disclose it when links that are paid for by advertisers. But many sites that embed commercial links in their stories rely only on "double underlining" to make those links distinctive.

_Image: Morguefile._

This post was originally part of an online course by ICFJ Anywhere, which supports journalists worldwide with free training on a range of topics. Courses are offered in a variety of languages including English, Arabic, Persian, Spanish, Portuguese, Turkish and French. For the latest ICFJ Anywhere course offerings, click here.