Goldacre support for the footnotes campaign

I’ve made a modest proposal a few times before (here and here) about one simple thing which journalists can do online to grow trust in what they write: use footnotes.

No need in digital for fiddly little numbers perched above the word and text at the foot of the page: just a live link which gives the provenance, the full text or the detail. Now it’s so easy, why shouldn’t the reader be able to see – if they’re curious – where the information came from?

Will this transform journalism? Definitely not. There are plenty of sources which can’t be acknowledged, there isn’t always time (as any blogger knows) to fill in all the links and text with too much blue in it can be irritating to read. Listing sources doesn’t abolish disputes about whether of not material has been used justifiably or not.

But none of those considerations undermine the general idea: that any news platform wanting to be taken seriously should make it an everyday practice to show where stuff comes from. No more complicated than that. In the long run that would be a more useful and valuable move than the current fad of newspapers making all their staffs use Twitter. Squeezed and scared by the collapse of the business model for daily printed papers, journalists have become very defensive in the past few years. This kind of simple open-handed trust-building would be one small way to reverse that mindset.

Why hasn’t this idea spread like common sense or wildfire? A few good writers do this routinely; but the habit isn’t normal yet. It’s tiresome to do and to enforce; the effort takes precious time when time is short. And there’s a less respectable reason. Footnotes for sources, where and when they can be acknowledged, shed light on the magic. Journalism might lose a little bit of glamour: much of the time reporters are assembling and presenting material from easily available material. They just make it sound mysterious and difficult.

So I’m going to promote links to this idea until and influential editor picks up the idea and makes it standard operating procedure in a big newsroom. One of the very best places for sources is science and medical journalism, much of it naturally based on research publications, as the science writer Ben Goldacre says here.

Let me know if you see other material useful to this campaign. And if you catch me failing to link to a source, be sure to tell me.

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