Monday, December 14, 2009

To link or not to link, that is the question

Are there times when links should not be used due to ethical considerations?

This question is drawing lively debate in the Press Freedom forum at the ICFJ. Let's first take a look at the ethics of linking in general:

A brief history of links

The first online news sites were reluctant to link to material outside their own sites, says Jay Rosen of New York University in this clip produced by the Carnegie Ethics Studio.

Later, links were commonly used with permission from the site owner, but that practice has essentially died out, with most sites linking freely to content.

This means it is generally acceptable to link to most sites without specific permission, but the etiquette (according to the Press Freedom class) is to remove links quickly and without question if asked to do so by the site owner.

Advantages of linking

Linking to outside sources can give depth to the reader's experience and can reduce the occurance of plagiarism as it is a means of attribution. Links can provide background or biographical information, show source documents and point to different or opposing points of view. But links must be used judiciosly.

Ethical considerations

All links should be carefully researched, with rigorous standards applied. In my view, Web sites should treat links the same way print publications use sidebars: If you would include the additional information as a sidebar in your publication, link it. If not, don't.

There are two key areas to be mindful of here:
  • Controversial material
  • Advertising
As always, there is a fine line to walk with controversial material. The examples given in our Press Freedom class -- the Jyllands-Posten cartoon controversy and "beheading videos" -- are good ones so I won't cast around for others. The ethical question here is, should readers be allowed to see first-hand what is causing controversy? Or is linking to the source in some way condoning it, raising its profile or lending it credibility?

My own view is that if people are interested in finding these things (and please note that I linked to the Wikipedia listings above, not to the actual cartoons or videos), they can do so in about 2 seconds on Google. There is no need for publications to serve them up on a platter.

As in print, advertising links always need to be clearly differentiated from regular news content.

In conclusion

These guidelines from Poynter Online offer an excellent overview of this topic.

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