Attribution and Linking Are Essential to Transparency

MUD day 4:

If you’re a B2B journalist or a journalistically inclined content marketer, you should be faithfully following Steve Buttry’s blog. Although he’s a died-in-the-wool (UPDATE: um . . . I meant “dyed-in-the-wool”) newspaper guy, he deals frequently and insightfully with issues that also plague trade editors and reporters. A good example is from Buttry’s post on Monday, in which he offers advice on attribution. It’s an age-old issue for trade journalists that has only intensified in the online era.

Though by all means you should read his entire post, I want to cover a few of his points that particularly apply in the trade press. The first is the thorny issue of press releases. As Buttry says, the idea of a press release is that you can freely crib from it—the company that sent it to you will be perfectly happy if you do. But you may do your reader a disservice if you don’t explicitly attribute the copy to the press release.

This is particularly true of quotes within the press release. Too often editors pick up the quote and attribute it directly to the speaker, as though they had interviewed the source or attended a press briefing. But instead of “… CEO Smith said,” it should be ” … CEO Smith said in a press release.

A related issue that Buttry brings up has to do with what he calls recycled quotes. As he says, “If you didn’t hear the person say something, you should probably attribute the quote not only to the speaker but to the medium that reported it.”

A few years ago, I had an editor who handed in a story with fantastic quotes from a variety of C-level executives. Thinking he had interviewed them all, I complimented him on being able to get through to so many elusive sources. He blanched, then told me he’d taken the quotes from various sources on the Internet. Needless to say, he rewrote the story with proper attribution.

Some writers have the opposite problem, and turn guidelines into fetishes. Rather than focus their lead on the story, they focus it on the attribution. More frequently than I liked, our writers would start a story with a sentence such as “Ellis Q. Stone, Assistant Vice President for Research and Development at Mondo Widget Corp. (New Paltz, NY), said ….” That would be followed all too often by other background information before the key point of the story would be raised. As Buttry suggests, “If you start a story with attribution, consider whether the person speaking is more important to the reader than what he or she is saying.”

In theory, attribution is easier and more useful online because you can link readers to the source. In practice, though, the trade press doesn’t link nearly enough. They should do better. As Buttry argues,

Linking is an essential part of attribution in online journalism. Linking lets people see the full context of the information you are citing. Even when readers don’t click links, the fact that you are linking tells them that you are backing up what you have written, that you are attributing and showing your sources.

If you want to see some examples of this shortcoming, you only need to read through a few stories from the leading publication for the magazine industry, Folio:. In an article entitled “Editors Share Best Practices for Twitter,” for instance, you might expect at least a link to each of the Twitter pages for the four editors profiled, if not also links to their magazines. But there’s not a single link in the story.

In the new-media era of journalism, the arguably most important ethical principle is transparency. As Steve Buttry reminds us, attribution and linking are essential tools for achieving it.

4 thoughts on “Attribution and Linking Are Essential to Transparency

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