Connective Tissues of Truth and Reputation

By | March 22, 2013

More truth requires more connections (hyperlinks) in news stories. photo credit: vaXzine via photopin cc

While on Spring Break in Florida this week, a University of Connecticut basketball player was arrested and charged with trespassing. Too bad. Lots of college kids do foolish things on Spring Break. (I know I did.) But because the student in question is a member of the UConn Men’s Basketball Team, this minor incident is considered news in Connecticut.

Why is it newsworthy?

– He’s notable (PROMINENCE).
– It’s Spring Break week at UConn and the arrest just happened (TIMELINESS).
– He is not the first UConn men’s team member arrested this season (TREND).
– The UConn men’s basketball team was banned from this year’s NCAA basketball tournament, which is now underway (CURRENCY). The ban is part of the reason why members of the UConn men’s basketball team could be on vacation in Florida for Spring Break.

The newsworthiness of the arrest has left me pondering this young man’s reputation and those of other students coming of age in our digital times.

[No] thanks to the archiving power of the Internet, the arrest story will likely be connected to this young man for the rest of his life. Even if he is found completely innocent of the crime he is accused of committing, when people “Google” his name, this widely accessed arrest story will show up among his list of results — indiscriminately and in perpetuity.

The Hartford Courant broke the story yesterday. The article was tweeted and posted on the Courant’s website, then amplified by many other online news organizations and individuals.

I’m going to assume The Courant will follow up on the story of the arrest with another article once the accused appears in a Florida court today (3/22/13). [Update: The Courant did follow up.]

But what will happen to the original arrest story that’s online?

Will that file be updated? Will any new information about the charges be connected to the old story? What if the charges are dropped? What if the police were wrong? (Police, sometimes, make mistakes, too).

Google’s algorithms and those of other search engines will rank the Courant’s original arrest story higher than the follow up, because that’s the web page that garnered the most attention.

So if we search and find the original story a year from now, will that page link us to the most recent, updated information on this case?

It should.

The nature of the web gives journalists a simple way connect the old to the new. It’s called a hyperlink. And in 2013, more news sites need to use hyperlinks deliberately and consistently to lead people to the most understanding and the most truth.

Here’s another example why. In 2012 and 2013, I served as a judge for the Society of Professional Journalists’ national Sigma Delta Chi awards contest. Most of the entries in the category I judged were well-reported pieces of investigative journalism, submitted as series of articles published over the course of weeks and months.

Surprisingly, some of these important stories were given short shrift in the design and presentation on their respective news organizations’ websites. The most glaring omission: Hyperlinks. Coverage of the topic may have happened in pieces, but each piece should have been obviously (and meaningfully) connected to each other.

When those connective elements go missing, it is a disservice to the public. Users who come upon one article in isolation should not have to be detectives or professional researchers to find the parts that link related stories into a greater whole.

Excuses still exist as to why old online news stories can’t be regularly connected to new ones.

– No legal obligation. If information as provided at the time of the original publication date is true, the news organization is protected, even if the information doesn’t remain true in the future. (Think local police blotters.) Legally, it’s fine. Ethically, it stinks.

– Poorly-designed and underfunded news websites may have restrictive content management systems (CMS), making it too time-consuming to code links, let alone have them added automatically to old stories through “topic galleries” or “related-content” widgets.

– Newsrooms have fewer full-time employees than ever. So priority is placed upon gathering and publishing what’s new, not adding context to old information that’s already been published.

I heard and used many of these excuses myself when I worked as an online producer and editor for 12 years.

Plenty has been written on using hyperlinks for attribution when aggregating information from other sources or to avoid accusations of plagiarism. (GigaOm’s Mathew Ingram has tackled this topic quite well, repeatedly).

But online news purveyors should also add focus to the simple power of hyperlinks to give audiences the WHOLE story as reported by their own newsroom – background, incremental pieces and all – especially when someone’s reputation is involved.

More information = more facts = more context = more truth.

Why? Because people’s reputations are at stake here. And not just the reputation of some young college basketball player from Connecticut.

Whether we like it or not, the World Wide Web has created a situation where every time a news organization includes someone’s name in an online post, caption or tweet, that news organization is influencing someone’s reputation, in perpetuity.

The Internet has given the news business greater distribution and archiving power than ever before. With the power to exert so much influence, shouldn’t journalists be held more accountable for those connections to the truth?

[FYI: I just checked. The Courant’s old arrest story does not connect to the new.]



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