Links and journalism: what is at stake?

Here is a part of the essay I wrote for the ECREA 2010 Summer School. It especially focuses on journalistic issues raised by hyperlinking. This post first outlines the rationale behind my research project as a whole, and then zeroes in on promises carried by hyperlinks for journalism.

What are the specificities of online news? What makes the difference between journalism on the web and the so-called traditional media? Those are the broad questions that have initiated my research. Among the distinctive features of online news, I chose to focus on one key issue and its impact on journalism: hyperlinking.

Rationale

Hyperlinks are those “highlighted words on a webpage that take ­­[readers] to other places on the web” (Turow 2008, p.3). My research project is rooted in the wonderment one can feel when facing the following contradiction: on the one hand, hyperlinks are associated with positive values (such as interactivity, credibility, transparency or diversity) and are thus said to improve the quality of journalism. On the other hand, empirical research has shown that news websites seldom live up to the promises and that their use of hyperlinks is scarce. Despite such disappointing outcome, the faith in hyperlinks as representing one of the potential bright futures of journalism remains lively – as shown by the recent pleas for the advent of “link journalism” or “networked journalism”.

The gap between promises and the actual use of links by news site is the main driving force of my research. In this respect, my goal is to take stock of the linking situation in the francophone online mediascape, in order to assert if such gap exists – and to investigate issues related to links in the practice of newsworkers.

The method used to give substance to this project is twofold: an introductory mapping followed by ethnographic case studies. Firstly, I aim at mapping the hyperlink networks around news sites. Hyperlink maps have two functions, descriptive and exploratory. As a descriptive tool, they can be used as a census, an overview of the actual linking situation and an attempt at verifying if, and in what terms, the promises associated with links are fulfilled. As an exploratory tool, hyperlink maps allow the emergence of previously unidentified questionings. Once the maps drawn, the second axis of my research involves focusing on case studies. Maps will allow to spot issues specific to my field of investigation (Belgian and French news sites) as well as specific news organizations that are likely to embody different linking trends. The questions raised by the maps are therefore taken back to the newsrooms – where the hyperlinks were created in the first place – by using qualitative methods such as interviews or newsroom ethnography. In so doing, and with the ideal values carried by links in mind, the final movement aims at reinstating hyperlinks in the context of the newsworkers’ professional practices and identity.

My research program at this point therefore involves a major worksite, a work-in-progress area with its own theoretical and methodological concerns that will be addressed hereafter: how to formalize the promises carried by hyperlinks for journalism?

Formalizing the promises

When it comes to conceptualizing the positive values associated with links, a peek at academic literature on the topic of news and links allows us to distinguish four main promises: interactivity, credibility, transparency and diversity – as well as an additional fifth promise of commercial reciprocity. This section will outline them and underline the gap between promises and the results of empirical research. I will then argue that the promises are not limited to academic literature, but that they also shape professional discourses and that they are part of the newsworkers’ “occupational ideology” (Deuze 2005).

Delineating the promises

Firstly, hyperlinks “create an element of interactivity for the user” (Peng et al. 1999) by offering them to click and surf to other parts of the web. They are said to “disperse the fundamental linearity” generally associated with traditional media, and especially with print (Dalhgren 1996; quoted in Oblak 2005). Interactivity, going hand in hand with non-linearity, is considered to be “at the core of new media technologies” (Bucy 2004, p.373) and therefore to be valuable for news websites (Chung & Nah 2009) – even though the positive effect of interactive media on readers seems questionable (Tremayne 2008).

Secondly, hyperlinks are said to improve the credibility of news stories, by providing links to context, facts and sources. They lead to “browsing through reports, archives dating back years and years, official documents and full transcript of interviews and statements” (Deuze 1999, p.383) and can thus help the reader to understand an issue in depth (Dimitrova et al. 2003). Hypertext and hyperlinking have a role “in providing a new means of accessing and cross-referencing information for the benefit of users” (Zimmer 2009, p.96). In short, they support facticity, which is desirable if one assumes that the process of sourcing is what defines journalism (Tsui 2008, p.71). In so doing, hyperlinking also addresses one of the “problems journalists routinely face” (Tremayne 2005, p.31), namely how much it is needed to recap previous events. This issue is settled without making news stories heavy with additional – and perhaps optional – text: “the technology of the web allows news presentation that might satisfy both those wanting short, fact-driven accounts and those wanting context, interpretation and opinion” (Tremayne 2004, p.238).

By providing direct access to sources, hyperlinks increase transparency. It is the third way in which they add value to journalism, by allowing “the reader to trace back the reporting and news gathering process” (Deuze 1999, p.383). Newsgathering practices such as finding and selecting valuable sources are no longer invisible. On the contrary, hyperlinks are likely to make them fully perceptible by directly pointing to them. Links thus constitute “the most significant mechanism of online gatekeeping” (Napoli 2008, p.63). Matheson argues that when journalists pick noteworthy links and present them to readers, there is a shift in the way they act as gatekeepers: “the communication interaction invoked here involves the offering of material to the user by the embodied voice of the news producer, rather that the existence of unembodied, self-evident information” (2004, p.455). Journalistic processes such as sourcing or gatekeeping are made explicit.

Finally, the last myth embodied in hyperlinks is that of an enhanced democracy thanks to diversity. Here, links address another problem journalists routinely face: do they have to report every alternative point of view (Tremayne 2005, p.31)? By linking to commentary or opinion that would not have found a place in traditional news stories, this “multiperspectival journalism” (Tremayne 2005) increases diversity and plurality. Those values are considered as central to our democratic societies.

Beside those four aspects in which links are said to add value to journalism, another pragmatic advantage of hyperlinking is to be remarked: placing links might result in reciprocity. Hence, it raises “important commercial concerns” (Tsui 2008, p.75) as the economy of the web is increasingly shaped by the way links are structured (Halavais 2009; Tsui 2008, p.74). For instance, search engines such as Google – that generate traffic and profit – are built on “the assumption that hyperlinks somehow transmit power or credibility” (Halavais 2008, p.43). Gathering and trading links is an essential part of the web economy.

Underlining the gap

In spite of those appealing prophecies, news websites seem, so far, to have failed to embrace hyperlinking. They appear to be especially cautious when it comes to providing external links (i.e. links leading to other websites, as opposed to internal links for navigational purposes within a same site). For example, Dimitrova et al. (2003) examined links stemming from 473 news stories gathered on 15 U.S. websites: only 4,1% of them were external links. Likewise, Tremayne (2005) studied 1147 news stories originating from 10 U.S. sites and concluded that only 17% of the links are external, with web editors favoring “local server content to that which appears elsewhere” (Tremayne 2005, p.38). Moreover, he observed that the proportion of external links tended to decrease over time, a trend he proposes to explain by the proportional growth of each site’s archives – providing more internal material to link to. More recently, Tsui (2008) compared the content of four leading newspaper sites with five leading political blogs. In this case, the percentage of external links goes as high as 35,2%, but it is mainly thanks to blogs. When isolated, three out of the four newspaper sites provide less than 3% of external links. The author reaffirms the lack of hyperlinks to track down original material, and chiefly explains the situation by fear of losing control over audiences, by technical and organizational inertia, and by fear of losing ad revenue. As for Chang et al. (2009), they found that 91,3% of the foreign stories (stemming from 28 international news sites) they examined had no external links at all. Furthermore, within the few external links they discovered, there was no candid diversity: a majority of external links led to sites belonging to what is called the “core countries” in the world-system theory, i.e. the dominant zone of “economic, political, social and cultural relations” (Chang et al. 2009, p.141). This is consistent with the findings of Halavais (2000), who underlines that real-world national borders affect how the links are distributed on the web. Far from an ideal borderless space where information would circulate freely and where diversity would be enhanced, links are self-centered or lead to sites from dominant countries: “data do not support claims that ‘cyberspace’ exists as an anarchic unvariegated universe” (Halavais 2000, p.8).

Even though empirical research indicates that news websites do not live up to the expectations, pundits are still advocating hyperlinks. Linking has not only remained fashionable, it also seems to have been reinvigorated by the advent of the so-called web 2.0. Commentators are pleading in favor of a “link journalism” (Karp 2008), the progress of which would be smoothed by micro-blogging tools, social bookmarking or collaborative filtering platforms. Similarly, some are supporting “networked journalism” as an engaging future for the profession. For example, Beckett (2010) argues that networked journalism relying on hyperlinks would add value to news in three ways: editorial diversity, relevance, as well as connectivity and interactivity. In this respect, a recent BBC policy shift epitomizes the tendency for news organization to firmly believe in links. Entitled Putting quality first, the 2010 report is aimed at defining BBC’s policy for the next years, and present “clear priorities”, among which: “Turning the site into a window on the web by providing at least one external link on every page and doubling monthly ‘click-through’ to external sites” (BBC 2010, p.4).

The promises in professional discourses: towards formalization

The promises conceptualized above rely solely on an examination of academic literature. I argue that they also take an important part in professional discourses; that is, what the newsworkers say about themselves. Promises associated with links therefore participate in broader online journalism myths, and in the even broader journalists’ dominant occupational ideology. Online journalism myths are a “socially constructed discourse that was shaped under the historical context of the social role of journalism”, they form a “program for creating a more transparent, comprehensive and dialogical reporting that would strengthen democratic participation in plural societies” (Domingo 2008, p.683). As for ideology, it can be understood as “an (intellectual) process over time through which the sum of ideas and views (…) of a particular group is shaped” (Deuze 2005, p.445). Journalists’ occupational ideology can be typified in ideal-typical values and “serves to continuously refine and reproduce a consensus about who counts as a ‘real’ journalist, and what (parts of) news media at any time can be considered to be examples of ‘real’ journalism” (Deuze 2008, p.16). Those notions also imply to discuss the idea of journalists – or newsworkers at large – as a profession (e.g. Ruellan 2007; Sanders et al. 2008; Deuze 2005; Singer 2003).

Trails and traces of those promises can be found in professional discourses. The task I have to handle from then on is to formalize that intuition, and therefore to answer the following questions: what are professional discourses? Where can they be found? Where and how are the promises expresses in those discourses? In this respect, the promises are fully part of my research object, and I need to find a way to materialize them in an objective manner. In order to do so, I plan to conduct a qualitative text analysis on a suitable corpus. So the main issue at stake here is the building of a corpus that could successfully account for what can be reckoned as dominant professional discourses. At this point, I consider the following options as potential corpuses – all of them being likely to expound the ideal/mythical vision of online journalism:

  • The corporatist discourses accompanying new versions of websites: When a new site or a new version of a news site is launched, it usually comes with triumphant articles and press releases explaining how improved the news will be. Analyzing such texts would give the opportunity to seize the promises as news corporations articulate them. It would also allow me to focus solely on the news media I chose to study.
  • Texts produced by associations of journalists: Unions and professional associations may produce sets of rules or guidelines that could suitably reflect what is considered as a standard in quality by newsworkers. However, I should remain wary that my field of investigation is the francophone (and especially Belgian and French) mediascape, where professional associations of journalists seem focused on traditional media – and are mostly silent on online news.
  • Experts and commentators: if professional associations do not deal with online journalism, there are plethoric actors on the web who do. Famous bloggers, essay writers and various think tanks have taken hold of the topic and they produce discourses and knowledge on it that are of hybrid nature. Such actors can neither be assimilated to professional newsworkers nor to scientists; they might be ex-journalists, curious amateurs, or academics expressing themselves outside the realms of scientific publication. They nevertheless produce a vast amount of expert comments that might be considered as influential or authoritative – think about the influence of well-known bloggers/writers such as Dan Gillmor, Nicholas Carr or Clay Shirky. Again, the intuition must be incarnate in an objective research project. By selecting the most popular or authoritative bloggers, for example? Most blog ranking sites such as Technorati or Wikio do not have a “journalism” category – rendering the selection of top-ranked bloggers problematical. Besides, as the blogosphere buzzes with conversations that are topic-centered and care little about national borders, would it be relevant to focus the analysis on French experts only – and conversely, would it be realistic to enlarge it to international pundits?
  • (online) journalism handbooks: handbooks intended at journalism students might also be potential producers of normative professional discourses.

A solution mixing two or more of those options could also be considered.

+ Download the full essay (pdf).

More on links/journalism => a fascinating series of article by Jonathan Stray on Nieman Journalism Lab :

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