BBC links and what they tell us about footnotes

BBC Online announced a new links policy for its news website the other day. There was some predictably snarky comment wondering why the BBC had taken so long to catch on.

The rules are a bit laborious, although a masterpiece of brevity compared to Wikipedia’s 5,000-word version. But the BBC’s policy change is a straw in the wind telling us about two important developments just over the horizon.

1.  The more links to external sites that appear on stories on major news websites, the more top tomatoes in the news business are going to be brought face to face with a large issue which most of them don’t want to think about. The BBC or anyone else can’t link to complimentary or connected material without reminding users yet again how many stories are too similar for comfort. This is especially likely to happen if, as is mostly the case, linkage is automatic. Algorithms aren’t yet good at spotting or avoiding overlap.

In the pre-digital age, it was time-consuming and expensive to lay many different versions of the same event side by side and compare them. Only journalists did that. The web now allows anyone to hop, skip and jump between the media of different continents, channels and languages in seconds. The entropic tendency of 24/7 media to converge on the same facts, soundbites and pictures and to rearrange them a little for each “original” version is painfully obvious. The perception of the value of journalism is bound to suffer. And it has.

As I write, there are somewhere between 1300 and 2000 journalists covering the rescue of the Chilean miners in the Atacama desert. When the news consumer at the other end of the process had no alternatives to the newspapers and broadcasts available at home, that kind of investment might have paid off for the news organisations present. Now it’s a shakier proposition. So what do they do?

2.  It isn’t quite as simple as the linkologists say when they chant “Do what you do best and link to the rest”. A link doesn’t – yet – tell you if it’s as reliable as the reporting on the site that you’re on because (maybe) you rely on its standards. Indeed, if you’re told anything about reliability, it’s likely to be a warning written by lawyers telling you that news site X takes no responsibility for anything you might click on which is beyond its borders.

So links aren’t just a matter of the richness of the information available, connectedness and convenience. The issue of accuracy and trust also enters the equation. What tests are needed before a news organisation can rely on the account given by another one? To what extent are news consumers going to tolerate cooperation and sharing when they have previously relied on competition to sharpen the picture?

Television news stations have long dealt with this issue but solved it by using a few, highly trusted sources of widely sold newsfilm. In the online, multi-channel era, different news organisations are going to work this out different ways while competing for peoples’ attention and trust. But links are crucially important part of this. They are going to be both threads connecting people and supporting evidence. Footnotes, if you like. Citing scientific and medical journals is an obvious example, but still done surprisingly rarely in mainstream media.

Many news organisations and bloggers do already do this; I try to do it myself as much as I can. What I foresee is news providers who want to underline a claim to quality shifting towards reporting which is routinely “footnoted” by links. We might get software which only indicates the link when the cursor goes over it and avoid the ugliness of lines filled with blue underlined words. Will the footnote link go as far as giving the audio for each direct quotation? Or the full interview? What conventions will form the gold standard?

If things develop in the direction I imagine, there will be a new market in user reassurance. (The complexities involved in working all this out are well captured in this NiemanLab survey.) This shift towards routine footnoting links will generate a lot of sifting and rating of sources. If fewer news outlets can afford to send people to the Atacama, they need to develop new ways of ensuring that they can rely on others. Because what they are relying on will be transparent via links.

Next time you’re reading more than one online news sources on the same subject, try comparing the ways in which they use links to reinforce your trust in what they’re reporting. It’s a revealing exercise.

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