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Why don’t journalists link to primary sources? (badscience.net)
173 points by baha_man on March 19, 2011 | hide | past | favorite | 51 comments

Because journalists don't read primary sources. More often than not they're not even aware of them.

Here's the problem: Almost all media outlets are in crisis mode so they're cutting down on their staff, meaning that a smaller number of journalists have to write the same amount of stories as before to fill the paper (or website). There simply isn't time for proper research if you have to write five articles a day.

So many journalists resort to "borrowing" from other news sources, which in turn often have borrowed their article from somewhere else. An article may start as a published paper in Nature,which is then reported in popular science, which is then reported by Reuters, which is then reported in The Times, which is then reported in The Daily Mail.

By the time it reaches The Daily Mail it's been through so many filters of busy journalists that the meaning has often become distorted. The journalist from the Daily Mail has no idea that there even is a primary source.

The tragedy is that the reaction of the mainstream media to this existential crisis is to unwittingly accelerate it.

The key problem is that local news sources (newspapers especially) have traditionally had relatively exclusive "broadcast" privileges to their audience. This let them make money from the broadcast business alone: selling classified ads; re-broadcasting weather reports, national and international wire reports, syndicated comic strips, etc. This is a low cost high markup business, so media grew fat off of it, and sometimes lazy. It's easier and far more profitable to fill a paper with human interest stories and re-broadcasted content than it is to do hard nosed reporting.

The internet has vastly disrupted every manner of broadcast exclusivity in existence, especially newspapers. Classified ads are obsolete in the face of ebay, craigslist, amazon, monster, and even facebook. Day old printed weather information is similar obsolete in the face of weather.com, wunderground.com, etc. Reprinted comics are similarly obsolete in the face of online access to not only the exact same comics but also a bevy of webcomics, many of them more appealing to various individual readers than the one-size-fits-all lowest common denominator of the newspaper. The same goes for opinion pieces and re-printed news. This leaves the value of a newspaper down to nothing more than it's unique coverage capabilities (e.g. local news) and basically whatever legitimately original reporting they do.

However, as newspapers have been faced with economic doom due to the loss of most of their revenue their response has typically been to foolishly double down on exactly the traits that have gotten them into trouble in the first place. To cut back on expensive elements such as original reporting and fall back on the cheap stuff. This'll work for a while, but it won't ultimately stave off doom as increasingly people will discover the value of the paper is diminishing and becoming less relevant. People will more and more find that life is just fine with out them, the process will accelerate as more and more people of every demographic follow suit.

Meanwhile, it'll be up to others to carry and to elevate the standard of journalistic integrity.

That is a pretty sweeping generalization. I work for a public radio station. Our journalists routinely interview primary sources, sometimes live on the air. We also transcribe those interviews and put them on the web. We've also been increasing the size of our news staff, not decreasing. It's not all doom and gloom, it just depends on the medium and the revenue model.

Our journalists routinely interview primary sources

That would be good journalistic practice, but that is not what Ben Goldacre is talking about in the blog post submitted here on HN. He is talking about news stories that purport to report on the result of a research study and what he is looking for is a citation (or a link, as appropriate to the journalistic medium) to the published research study. Not doing that doesn't pass the smell test for Goldacre.


Of course, even if the published study is cited, it still has to be examined carefully,


but there is no reason to hide the published study from the consumer of the journalistic report. You are referring to persons as "sources," the same way I did when I was a journalist, while Goldacre is referring to publications as sources.

If they interviewed one of the scientists whose name was on the paper, wouldn't that count?

Also, it's hard to publish links on the radio.

Finally, I think you missed his point- not all news organizations are going the tabloid route.

If they interviewed one of the scientists whose name was on the paper, wouldn't that count?

My answer, as a former journalist, is that whether or not that would count would depend on how well the reporter prepared for the interview. Good preparation for an interview of a scientist who just published a news-making paper would be reading the paper before the interview.

It's just as easy to cite papers on the radio as in print to make the paper findable, by saying something along the lines of "a paper by A. Smith and B. Jones published in the 1 April 2001 issue of Science." That's not a complete citation format, but Goldacre's complaint in the blog post submitted here is about mentions of papers where perhaps an author was mentioned, and perhaps a journal title was mentioned, but the date of the paper was not mentioned, and a link to the paper found in a press release was not reproduced in the online version of a print publication that often carries links to other online content.

After edit: I agree with you that you are responding to an exaggeration in a comment to the submitted article, with an example of a news organization that does better at fact-checking than the news organizations mentioned in the submitted link, and I too think there are happy exceptions to the tendency in some places for journalism not to cite published research. Here's wishing for more journalism to emulate the best current examples of careful research and meticulous citation of sources.

> If they interviewed one of the scientists whose name was on the paper, wouldn't that count?


If you're reporting on science, for example, the interview is unlikely to provide sufficient information. The interview is information for telling a story. Why? Because journalists aren't subject-matter-experts - they're story-tellers.

> Finally, I think you missed his point- not all news organizations are going the tabloid route.

You miss the point. The fact that some news organizations don't trade coverage for access does not imply that those organizations are producing good news. It just means that they're not committing a specific (albeit common) sin.

In other news "both sides don't like my coverage" does not imply "my coverage is good/fair/balanced/etc".

However, it would be nice if you provided a link to all of the interview, not just the results of your edit.

I've noticed this on KPCC in Orange County, CA - sound bytes from a mayor's speech that's being covered, or a quick interview with someone at HBGary after the whole Annonymous attack. On one level these sound bytes are superfluous, they don't add anything beyond what the reporter is already telling us. But in addition to adding new voices to the newscast, it also assures the listener that the reporter was at the mayor's speech, has talked to people affected at HBGary, that we're not just getting regurgitated news stories as are so common (as pointed out by this article). Even the news story about Guitar Hero being cancelled had sound clips from "music experts" about the effect the game had on popular culture (essentially, his kid likes classic rock and roll now when he never liked it before) - that had limited news value, but real exclusive added value for the radio station.

So KPCC is one example of a news organization doing things above board.

KPCC is one of our stations.

Can you provide a link to your station's website? It would be nice to have an example to look at and compare other outlets.

I think a journalist from the Daily Mail probably has no idea what a primary source even is.

Oh, I'm pretty sure they do. Not because their main stream articles are any good, but because they seem to go out and find the really weird stories and jazz them up. They get a lot of play on fark.com and they like to put up bigger pictures that tends to draw the links on entertainment stories. Not good journalism, but they seem to have brought their newsstand game to the web in a fairly smart fashion.

They haven't always been in a crisis mode. They've never linked to primary sources. Even if you take the print edition of a newspaper before the Internet, you'll never see instructions at the end of an story on how to obtain the full writeup of the data by the investigating scientist.

This is changing. Many journalists would love to share and link to their primary source documents, but don't have an easy-enough way to do it.

At DocumentCloud, we're trying to change that. Here is a list of newsrooms that use DocumentCloud to share their sources -- you'll notice most of the usual suspects in there:


Here's a good example of a major 5-part story that cites its sources heavily. Take a look at the source documents page, and try reading one of the articles, and clicking on the links:


Jeremy's right -- publishing source documents is becoming a regular part of the process. DocumentCloud has accelerated that. At ProPublica we make a regular practice of it. Here's an index of documents we've published alongside stories:


(Disclosure: I work at both ProPublica and DocumentCloud)

Is part of the problem that a lot of professional media is from a print-oriented perspective, so that in the journalistic/editing mindset and initial target medium hyperlinking isn't possible?

Really, it's that publishing at the scale of a big paper requires separation of responsibilities. The workflow hasn't caught up to the new medium -- and neither has the publishing software. Newspapers are notoriously slow to adopt new tools. The New York Times was composed using linotype machines until 1978 -- about 20 years late -- and when I worked there in the late 1990s the pagination system (essentially, the CMS) was a green screen application running on a few rows of PDP-11s.

Kleinmatic is 90% correct -- reporters are used to banging out copy, passing it to an editor, re-writing it, passing it to a copyeditor, re-writing that, back through the ringer, and passed onto someone they've probably never met who fits it on a page. They've never had to really worry about the presentation on the paper besides the number of inches and maybe worrying about a sidebar or illustration to go with it.

So in that sense, asking them to link -- a presentation function! -- is very new in and of itself.

But also, a lot of the content management systems make linking prohibitive. The version our reporters and editors see makes you paste it into the story as a plain, unadorned URL, bumping against the words you want to link. But hope there's no comma after it -- it's comin' with it. And if you need to edit those words, you might screw the URL with it.

Footnotes? Academic papers have until recently been designed mostly with print in mind and had no problem directing people to primary sources.

I guess part of it is the print mindset of giving the impression to readers that the journalists at the paper generated all the content without any borrowing of materials.

I think one of the main reasons may be that a lot of what appears to be journalism actually isn't - it's press releases from various companies and organisations, known as "churnalism". It's surprisingly easy to find churnalism, even in what appear to be fairly authoritative news sources (see churnalism.com). If journalists routinely cited their sources they would have to admit that often large sections have been copied verbatim from the public relations output of companies.

But the point of the article was that in at least one of the three stories mentioned, the journalists appear not to have even read the press release for the study in question.

Journalist are probably even less inclined to be caught doing that.

In the sciences, most of the primary sources are closed, and so linking wouldn't be too helpful. The material also tends to be so technical that only experts in the field can read it.

As for that class of secondary sources (e.g. review articles and editorials) that is provided for free in a dumbed-down form, then, yes, journalists should provide links.

A custom of providing links would be very helpful in the "chat about science" writing industry, so much of which is based on opinion and political view.

But would it really be that difficult to give me the citation so I can look up the paper in my university's database, or pay for it online if I'm that interested? A proper citation instead of "scientists from the university of blah" is still an improvement.

Even if they just put in the author, venue & volume/issue or, for annual venues, year, that will generally be enough information to find it without a full citation.

Absolutely. For someone interested enough to read a 10-page scientific article to verify a reported fact, $30 fee is usually not a big deal (plus the 5-10% of the population who are in the universities can get it for free). I am surprised the science journals themselves are not pushing for this.

I think it's better to say that in science, many of the primary sources are closed. There's been a huge boom in open access publishing in the last 10ish years, so now well over half the journals I read are open access, and PNAS has an open access option.

Especially when one of the egregious distortions mentioned was from PLoS One, there's just no excuse not to go back, glance at the article, and maybe any linked News and Views type articles.

The article gives the answer: because quite often it would just be embarrasing for the "journalist". So many stories get blown up/made bigger then they actually are, to get more clicks/readers for the story.

I think it goes even deeper than that, even for non-distorted stories the whole news industry seems to bend backwards to prove they have an added value up to the point of making itself perceived as being the source. Adding a link to the source reveals they're just part of the echo chamber.

I sincerely hope this culture of linking to sources, first spurred outside of research to the general public by Wikipedia and its need for credibility, and then even more fueled by microblogging habits triggers a revolution in news outlets, bringing them back towards true journalism.

Most likely the reason is simple: Journalists[1] are not digital natives. They don't understand or "get" the web. The tools they use don't understand very much beyond print and make linking cumbersome.

[1] and obviously here I'm using a very broad brush -- Ben Goldacre is a good example of a young doctor / writer who really gets the web and there are quite a few others.

The academic literature has been citing sources for far longer than the web's been around.

The web has very little to do with this in my mind (other than making it even easier to link to sources). References to primary sources should be included whether the article is in digital or print form.

Poor science reporting may be worse these days than ever, but it is not unique to online content.

In theory, journalists have jobs that are about synthesis, not information. You read the story about the local town council meeting mainly because it is entertaining and engaging, not because it's a summary of the meeting notes.

That's a very difficult thing for technical people to grasp. Sometimes I think we view everything online as various versions of wikipedia, and it's not like that at all.

In practice, sure, they do a bad job many times. Sometimes they just copy and paste Press Releases. Many times they bungle a quote (Although most quotes are problematic to use verbatim. People don't talk in real life like they do in movies and books) But reporting is an art, not an algorithm. Reporters and editors are supposed to be very good at taking multiple sources, including the reporters own generated research, and mashing it together into something greater than the sum of the parts.

I don't have an opinion one way or the other about linking to primary sources. If I had to choose I guess I'd like for them always to be included. But the idea that somehow it's going to make a big difference doesn't add up for me. For researchers, sure. But not for the average reader.

> Reporters and editors are supposed to be very good at taking multiple sources, including the reporters own generated research, and mashing it together into something greater than the sum of the parts.

Can you give some examples of "reporters own generated research"?

The only one that comes to mind is Arthur Carlson's "As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly."

Great line, and still memorable after many years.

An interview is research. As is looking for a good picture, or finding obscure facts in various offline sources.

This. This is why I do not read newspapers or most non-academic journalism. I have taken journalism courses at grade school, high school, and college levels and they ALL cover the idea of finding and citing primary and secondary sources and that all other sources are dubious, yet somehow once you get a degree in journalism this entire idea goes out the window!

Because most "science" reporting is tossed-off shit. It's of no value to those outlets to make it obvious how inaccurate (or alternately, copy-and-pastey) their work is.

There seems to be an unsatisfactory gray area between slack technology and misguided editorial practice (assuming better guidelines help create more substantial/enjoyable journalism).

With adequate tools for making the sourcing process as effortless as possible (see Jeremy Ashkenas' and Scott Klein's comments) it ought to remain an optional value-add for publishers: those who don't mind having their sourcing restricted to press releases, effort-obscuring generalizations or PR-driven 3rd party referencing won't encourage technologies that would enable their newsrooms leverage their in-house professionalism, regardless of its potential.

Linking/referencing is fundamental to good, original content, whatever the medium (see randlet's comment). If publishing software won't support easy source accreditation (particularly in a web-focused, hyper-linking context), journalists and editors are going to lose out - either by facing a 'keep my job vs. best practices' drama or by becoming disillusioned with the chance of success their organization has in maximizing the credibility of the staff input going into evolving their brand itself.

Taking their access to low cost, more modern publishing tools as a given, perhaps in more dynamic/educational reporting environments they should exploit software with prompts - asking authors to confirm that their content is 100% lacking of any derivative work, sources, or any mere cursory reference to any other material/commentary out there. This might even help less experienced journalists off-set some of the responsibility they have in bringing new ideas to the attention of their demanding readers ('this is my article, but here's some source curation for you, while I get my story straight'). Of course software that assumes any kind of pedagogical role is just as likely to become demonized by journalists who resent tools for their antiquated inefficiency. There's a fine line.

Services like DocumentCloud are vital in all this. As ilamont points out, there are also practical hurdles to overcome: even if you have the technology and inclination towards sourcing best practices, if you're running an online publication there's still the knee-jerk reaction to want to obscure your primary source, in case it out-performs your own content and thereby undermines your credibility. That's a question of quality and self awareness, though. The credibility loop will eventually hit your property, one way or the other.

We've been told by some news sources that have used our data/research that "they don't link out" as a policy. As a matter of our own policy, we are less willing to help them in the future and have indicated as such.

That said, we usually followup with journalists and ask for a link and most usually don't have an issue with providing it until their editor overseers ixnay the idea.

I think it's often less about malicious intent than being clueless about the "link economy".

This isn't a new observation, and as a few people have pointed out in this thread, some of the more digitally-aware news organizations are working on this problem actively.

The Knight News Challenge gave out grants this year for people to tackle the problem of verification and trust in online news, and I met someone from Mother Jones who was working on a system for documenting primary sources.

I also gave a talk last year proposing a standards-based solution for this at a journalism/tech conference in Philadelphia. My thoughts about it are here: http://beatpanda.co.cc/blog/2011/01/31/show-your-work-fillin...

More importantly though, I'm seeing a lot of potential customers for disruptive news startups right here in this thread.

Look at how many people don't trust the media. The challenge, if you want to make paying customers out of these doubters, is to not only deliver the news, but to give people a reason to trust what you're saying.

Journalists showing their work would be a good first step towards that.

Honestly I think this has as much to do with the process of news publishing and the systems and software they have in place to manage it.

I worked at a newspaper for 5 years, and their editorial system - this would be the software that reporters write their stories in, editors edit the stories in and proof readers and copy editors lay out pages in, not to mention ad placement, classified pagination and much more - was pushing 10 years old when I started. It wasn't integrated with the website content management system. It was slow, outdated and very annoying.

But it worked, everyone new how to use it, and we knew that we would be able to publish multiple publications every day, 365 days a year. The fact that the system wasn't fully integrated with the CMS meant it was difficult to add links to stories, usually requiring going into the CMS and hand-coding links, after waiting for the publishing scripts to grab the story and post it, a process which could take up to 30 minutes, depending. Typically an online editor or copy editor, far removed from the research and work the reporter had done, would manage this for the entire website, since it makes more sense for the reporter to be out on the street doing actual reporting.

So the 'simple' task of adding a link isn't as simple as it seems when placed in the context of a fast moving newsroom. Typically the battle isn't "why isn't there a link to that source document?" but rather "what do you mean you can't get anybody to speak on the record" or "we need a story for the 1A centerpiece now."

And then the next day the same battles start all over again, the process repeats and another newspaper is printed. It's difficult to change the process because the process is so critical to meeting print deadlines to be able to deliver papers on time.

To add to this, newsrooms are getting cut down at the same time they have to do more. My newsroom once had ~60 people at a time when all they did was print the paper. When I left, it was about half that size and we were posting regular online updates, tweeting, linking to stories from facebook, monitoring comments online, posting photo galleries, shooting video and creating interactive flash presentations on top of it all.

So, yea, if the reporter has time, he reads the report. If it's a story about calf length, it's more likely he'll skim it to be able to bang out a space-filling (or traffic driving) story. And since it's a light human interest story, and not something that's likely to get the paper sued, it gets a quick once-over proofread, then posted to the internet ASAP, then printed, and everyone is on to the next big story to feed daily monster that is daily publishing.

I still think some of these organizations will get there. The New York Times is leading the pack, but the slower publishers will take awhile to replace their antiquated systems and change the daily process that has been refined and perfected since the dawn of the printing press. Of the ones that don't, new organizations that can manage the digital realm will replace them.

Good points although I'm not sure the technology basis is at the heart of it. Bloggers are equally bad about linking to primary sources. Back in 2008 I traced several stories from the first reports via the tech and politics blogospheres to the mainstream media, and in almost all the cases the primary sources had vanished a couple of articles into the chain. X writes something on NewsVine; Y writes about it in Wired (linking to X) and then it gets on Slashdot or Reddit or HN; Z writes about it in the New York Times -- and links to Y, but not X.

Agreed that time is a lot of it, but it's also a matter of how people want their articles to look. What's more important, linking to the original source or buttressing the story's credibility by highlighting that it's reported in Wired? Both! But it takes a lot of work to craft a sentence that reads smoothly and allows you to link to both stories (and even then it may be very hard to fit in the authors' names) and very few authors consistently make the effort.

Did you work at the same place I do now(small-town paper in the Pacific NW)? Being the sole developer there, I can absolutely confirm this. And since I was hired to write the website CMS, most of my days resemble the assembly line segment from Chaplin's Modern Times.

Nope, but I did work at several small papers and one mid-size paper. They all had pretty much the same working environment :)

First job was creating the web presence of a newspaper.

saw all that. same thing. 10yrs old CMS when i was there in 1999... BUT in 2001 the new ombudsman started with his op-ed column talking how much he hated that not a single journalist moved his butt off his chair. There's no journalism going on. every editor just sit there, waiting for reuters or, god forbid, the TV, to bring in the news. Everyone just trying to hit ctrl+v faster than the competition. One smaller 'portal' even used to copy our news and stamp an hour earlier on the top... fun times.

In the end... the fact that the CMS is old and all means nothing, i completely failed to see the relation you tried to make. the fact is that people think that good journalism is the guy that press ctrl+v faster. so newspapers gives you that. Nobody wants source to have to read even more. They just want to know that wine is good for the heart. And the first one to publish it is the best newspaper.

If you asked most reporters whether they used primary sources, they would say yes, and point to the interviews that they conduct.

But if you were to point out that primary sources also includes published research, almost to a man or woman they would say A) they don't have the time to read it B) they don't have access to the journals or C) they are not aware the research exists. A few might concede D) even if they had access, they wouldn't be able to understand the research, which points to the fact that most journalists didn't major in science/technology in college and academic writing can be difficult to penetrate.

Of the above factors, I think C presents an opportunity for academics and startup publishers. On the academic side, it's pretty clear that the traditional method of reaching out to reporters via press releases and personal contacts is becoming less viable as newsrooms cut staff and the remaining writers have less time to network/talk with sources (travel budgets to attend conferences are very restricted these days) and write up stories based on those encounters.

Some researchers have seized upon blogging as a great way to not only reach their peers, but also a wider audience, and of course, other media (including journalists, specialist blogs, etc.). Group blogs written by researchers and experts are another great way to highlight new research and discuss ideas, too. Terra Nova ( http://terranova.blogs.com/ ) is one example focused on virtual worlds; I am sure the audience here knows of many others.

But the problem with individual and group blogs is they are still largely unknown outside of a relatively small group of people. In order to make a mass audience connection, there needs to be a way for these ideas to be presented in newspapers and television reports (which is how many people still learn about the world around them), or on media websites.

An arrangement to republish blog content or for the blog authors to prepare easy-to-understand summary reports for a mass media audience are possibilities, but the processes and incentives need to be worked out -- preferably in a way that takes the load off of editors, who don't have the time to find the right bloggers and deal with the freelance contracts and payment issues. One startup idea would be to create a "marketplace" to match publishers who are seeking an informed report about a specific scientific topic (for instance, how a boiled water reactor works). Another avenue for a startup would be to set up a "science wire service" which prepares timely, relevant coverage (including blogs, video, and features) about new research and developments every day. Media companies could subscribe to the service and editors could browse the service and use as much as they like, just as they do with Reuters, Bloomberg, AP, etc.

As for the specific issue of not including links, this partly relates to the awareness and access issues mentioned above, but also to the fact that content management systems used at many newspapers and magazines are optimized for print publishing, not online publishing. Inserting links typically has to be done after the article has been written, often by different editors or producers who know how to use Wordpress/Drupal/homegrown tools. I think there's a startup opportunity here as well, but unfortunately it also requires a rethinking of newsroom processes and control.

> Some researchers have seized upon blogging as a great way to ... reach their peers ... I am sure the audience here knows of many ...

Will the audience with such knowledge kindly enlighten the rest of us?

Theoretical/mathematical physics: Not Even Wrong http://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/wordpress/

The reference frame http://motls.blogspot.com/ (not only physics, but also climate change)

Collective blog on mathematics and mathematical physics: n-Category cafe http://golem.ph.utexas.edu/category/

Two I have visited in the past:

Economics: Baseline Scenario: http://baselinescenario.com/

Asian History: Frog in a Well: http://www.froginawell.net/

Frank Rich (of the NYTimes, although he's moving to NY Mag) has always been great about linking to sources. Not always necessarily a primary source, but for an op-ed writer it makes a huge difference to show that you can back up your claims. Or at least that your sources think they can


http://www.badscience.net is Ben Goldacre's blog, and he publishes his Guardian articles there.

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