One easy, transparent way of making accuracy visible: open sourcing

This blog has occasionally murmured that serious news media with an interest in being trusted had one simple way of demonstrating their reliability with the facts. And that way was offered by the digital technology which is so menacing to the livelihoods of newsrooms rooted in the print era.

I’ve argued that the building of trust would be strengthened by footnotes: links in the text which take the reader to the full version or to the source material. Digital content operates in three dimensions: the two dimensions you see on the screen of a phone, tablet or PC and the third dimension which you can access via an embedded link.

I wasn’t alone in pointing out this neglected opportunity, but I was surprised by how little traction the idea – which still seems a no-brainer to me – actually had. I had the chance to explain it recently to the editor of A Very Serious Newspaper whose journalists, I said, could demonstrate their superior reliability by this simple change. It was clear the the editor in question had little idea what I was talking about.

I think part of the problem is the word “footnotes”. So this small campaign is here being officially rebranded. “Footnotes” remind people of tiny text at the foot of the page on dusty pages in silent libraries. Henceforward this is the drive for “open sourcing”.

I’m making it sound more simple than it is. Plainly, there are sources which no reporter can disclose; the number of links in a piece by a political reporter will usually be small. An online publication must decide the least annoying way of signalling links in a text which should be smooth and easy to read. But links no longer have to be bright blue as they once were: in this blog, live links are in (slightly) bold text.

Given that this is easy in blogs, I can’t believe it isn’t possible in the content management systems of large news websites. The real block is this: putting in links is time-consuming and counter-cultural. Making reporters acknowledge the sources they can disclose and provide them routinely also to the reader is not going to be easy.

But one simple way of describing journalism is to say that we discover information and then structure it to make it useful. Open sources add to the usefulness of information; in the end, people will value linked news more highly. People talk a lot about “transparency” in journalism (I’m talking about it here); this is a way to make it real.

Open sourcing in news is going to happen. It will one day become so normal that people will stare in wonder when told that there was an era when it wasn’t routine.



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