When to Make the Link
What are the guidelines for when to link to controversial groups mentioned in news stories?
By Jon Marcus
Jon Marcus, a frequent contributor to AJR, is executive editor of Boston Magazine. He once worked for the AP.
W HEN THE ASSOCIATED PRESS decided earlier this year to regularly list the Web sites of people, places, organizations, studies and reports that were the subjects of its stories, it stepped right into the middle of a war. The Civil War.
The AP's News & Navigation program began around the time emotions reached a climax over the question of whether the Confederate flag should fly above the South Carolina Capitol. So, at the end of almost every piece it moved about the flag flap, the wire service listed Web addresses for three groups that had positions on the controversy: the NAACP, the South Carolina Heritage Coalition and the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
These groups have other positions, too, however. The Sons of Confederate Veterans "rejects any group whose actions tarnish or distort the image of the Confederate soldier or his reasons for fighting." The South Carolina Heritage Coalition wants, among other things, for South Carolinians to be categorized as "Confederate Americans" on the federal census, "Dixie" to be played throughout South Carolina, and the birthdays of Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis to be made state holidays.
It's an illustration of potential pitfalls as news organizations direct readers into cyberspace. And it raises the question: If these news organizations have an obligation to stand behind the content of their stories, should they also be responsible for the material on the sites to which they send their readers?
"This isn't as much science as it is art," says AP Vice President and Executive Editor Jonathan P. Wolman. "You're trying to weigh the values and news judgment that you acquire in the course of your work, and I think we've been successful doing that. There's been a mishap or two along the way that we've tried to learn from. We read the wire first ourselves, so one way or another we've tripped over citations that we've either changed or regretted."
Joshua S. Fouts, editor of the Online Journalism Review, produced at the University of Southern California, says reporters do have a responsibility to check the accuracy of Web sites to which they send their readers. "What's happened is that reporters are not being as thorough as they should be in investigating and confirming the validity and accuracy and political standing of the Web sites that they're referencing," Fouts says. "I'm all for the beauty of the Web, which is that I can learn about all sorts of amazing things.... The difference is that I, as an informed reader, recognize that I'm getting a certain person's opinion, and that needs to be understood."
Some media companies think so, too, and disclaimers also are becoming common. Every outside link on CNN.com is labeled: "External sites are not endorsed by CNN Interactive." Other news organizations use disclaimers on a case-by-case basis. "It's like the Supreme Court ruling about pornography: You know it when you see it," says Joyce Garcia, assistant editor of chicagotribune.com.
"Our general disclaimer is, This will take you out of the site,' " Garcia says. "Usually it should by implication mean, 'This is not necessarily something we advocate.' " On occasion, she says, she will add a more explicit warning. When chicagotribune.com linked to the homepage of a disgruntled United Airlines customer during that company's scheduling and labor difficulties this summer, it cautioned: "These links will take you out of chicagotribune.com, which does not endorse the sites." The Los Angeles Times site, latimes.com, alerted readers to expect adult language when it linked to the profanity-ridden Web site of the rock group Rage Against the Machine.
The AP began incorporating Web addresses in national stories on March 6 and on state wires at the end of April. But there hasn't been a rush by newspapers, in print or online, to use the Web addresses being furnished; of the eight papers that ran a story about a key development in the Confederate flag controversy, for example, only two included the addresses.
Says Wolman: "It's true that if you're looking at a story that quotes the governor of Colorado, and the AP provides a Web address that allows you to click on the governor's official Web site, that you're going to see material unfiltered by journalists. But I don't see that as a danger to democracy or the public interest."
In an internal memo to bureau chiefs and news editors, AP brass asked them to exercise their "best news judgment and regular AP editorial standards [to determine] what sites to include." But they acknowledged the seeming contradiction that "we cannot vouch for the accuracy of the information on any non-AP site."
For that and other reasons, many news organizations have been hesitant to post more links. "It used to be in the early days that you'd try to load up a story with as many links as possible," says Richard Core, deputy editor for news at latimes.com. "Now the perspective has changed a bit, that we don't want people to leave our site as easily, so we're a little more selective about which links we include."
At CNN.com, however, the policy is still the more, the better. "Our philosophy is really the philosophy of the Internet from its earliest origins," says Chuck Westbrook, senior vice president and managing editor of CNN Interactive. "We think it's important for you to get the story straight from the people who are major players in the story.... Our basic policy is that we want our links to be balanced, the same way we would compose a news story."
Washingtonpost.com, which lists the Web sites of the presidential candidates and others, favors appropriate Internet links. "Frankly, I don't think we're linking enough right now," says Douglas Feaver, the site's executive editor. "If this is something that enhances the value of the story and it's a plausibly responsible site, I encourage links, even though it takes people off the site. I used to think we have to keep them here. Now I think, that's ridiculous. I presume the 'back' button still works."