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BBC News linking policy (2)

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Steve Herrmann Steve Herrmann | 15:27 UK time, Thursday, 1 April 2010

I recently posted some thoughts and questions here about external linking from the BBC News website, and there are a lot of interesting and useful responses.

Example of Related LinksI want to answer some of the questions you raised, and also pick what I think are the main themes in the responses, and use these to help frame what we do next. Thanks to all of you who have contributed so far.

Links policy: There are some questions on our policy about linking to sites with contentious content. This is currently summed up as follows in our editorial guidelines:

"BBC sites which cover a controversial or public policy matter may offer links to external sites which, taken together, represent a reasonable range of views about the subject. We should ensure that when we link to third party sites that we take into account any concerns about potential breaches of the law eg defamation or incitement to racial hatred, or the BBC guidelines on harm and offence."

This question will also be covered in the new draft guidelines [754KB PDF] due to be finalised and published later in the year.

Hosting source documents: On whether we should host or mirror certain source documents (government reports, budget documents, for example) or
simply link: we are keen to simply link when possible, and we are talking to Directgov, for example, about making sure this works well. But if, on any occasion, the best way to ensure quick and simple access for you looks like hosting them ourselves, that's what we'll continue to do.

Languages: Some of you ask about linking to non-English sites. We
are going to add more numerous and prominent links to our own BBC websites in different languages at index level soon. At story level, it depends on the journalist being able to read, check and understand the content he or she is linking to.

Subscription sites: There seem to be mixed views among those of you who have replied to this question, but a number of you say that if we link to content which must be paid for, we should label it as such. We are still working on this. Currently the Newstracker module indicates if the link is going to a site that may require registration.

Opening in new windows: Quite a bit of debate in the responses. Our current standards across the BBC site are not to automatically open new windows for links, on the basis that we are leaving you to control how many browser windows you want open and how you use them.

Screenshot of guideline on opening new windows

Enabling comments on stories: So people can tell us what they know, what they think, or indeed suggest different links to add, we are aiming to get a system in place to allow us to do this efficiently before too long for a wider range of our stories.

On Newstracker: Interesting feedback on our Newstracker module - some of you see it as of limited value; there's a suggestion that, rather than news stories, we include more comment and analysis from other sites (including blogs) and that the module should remain ("frozen") on archived stories, rather than automatically dropping off as it does now. We'll look into these suggestions.

References and sources for science reports: You've made a lot of interesting suggestions on this area, which we'll be weighing up in detail, for example:

• Add inline links (embedded in the story) direct to the source information wherever this is available
• A collection of all links related to the article alongside or at the end of the article
• Provide citation details for our sources (eg authors, publication number, date, etc) especially if, for whatever reason, we can't link to them
• Don't report on research until a full peer-reviewed paper is published
• Highlight when stories are not based on published peer-reviewed evidence
• Make use of the Digital Object Identifier System and/or Pubmed
• Help put greater pressure on the scientific publishing industry to make scientific research available to the taxpayer

A couple of other comments which I want to respond to on linking from science stories:

WhitewaterOregon acknowledges that good linking takes time:

"I was astonished to see a BBC reporter at a science conference taking the time to fill out the linking sidebar for a story he was filing. Had always assumed this was the editors' job. I wonder how many readers realize the extra lengths your reporters go?"

It is certainly true that adding good links takes time, and this may affect the speed of the story, or even the range of stories we have time to do, but it is and should be an integral part of the process. Giving people access to the data that lies behind stories should be an important priority for us. It's something we are doing more of as more data is made available, for example by public bodies. But we also want to get new lines out quickly, alerting you as soon as we can to new developments. So I think we need to balance both these things.

Dr Lee Hulbert-Williams said we should have more science graduates writing science stories so we don't sensationalise them. We have got specialist journalists and they are well qualified. But they do not write every single science story on the website, because they aren't here 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Wherever possible, though, they do write them, or check them or follow up.

Linking in general: There seem to be lots of shades of opinion here. Many of you want us to link more; others appreciate the links we already have; one or two don't want more, or even any. There is support for good, relevant links embedded within the text of our stories, but also for the "links box" area where we collect together the relevant links on a story.

These are some of the comments that highlight areas we need to consider:

Shevek wrote:

"I appreciate the separate links section because it means I can easily see a set of references; something not possible if the links are only embedded in the text and must be discovered serendipitously."

Boilerplated likes the format of an "info box" - or even "history box" containing the relevant links - "the only problem... is that there is hardly ever room for raw URLs." The idea of an info box or history box is intriguing and I think it could be a good way of evolving what we do now.

Matti Koskimies wrote that, "while it seems from the comments that a lot of people are favouring embedding links within the story, I would advise strongly against it." He says hypertext traditionally means this sort of linking, "but the origins of hypertext are not in news articles", where he argues they can distract the reading process because they are in a different colour than the normal text. "You may think of it as insignificant, but it's not. You wouldn't want to read a paper article with random words or partial sentences in blue color either." He goes on to make clear he's completely in favour of even more linking, but in a separate area, which "a) keeps the article itself easy to read through, b) centralises all the links into one place where they are easy to go through, c) allows for better semantics e.g. for search engines - you can give the link the same name as the title of the page instead of some random part of a sentence".

I think this is also an important point for us to consider. In a nutshell it describes why we have traditionally not included embedded links in news stories, and why even now we include them mostly just in background and reference articles.

The opposite point of view is well expressed by blahedo who says "the problem with linking on the side has always... been that you only find links if you go looking for them. This always seems twice as egregious when the article itself is *about* a website, and then I have to go hunting in the sidebar for the actual link to the website - and sometimes the link labels are not perfectly obvious".

The comment pinpoints the kinds of links which might work best as embedded: "when linking to a website under discussion (when the website itself is the article topic), a document under discussion (eg the Pope's recent Ireland letter), or some sort of scientific development."

This seems to me like a pretty good starting point when considering what links should be embedded in a story.

jack_hatfield says he is torn about where links should go: "Currently, the stories are lovely uncluttered blocks of text, but consequently I never notice or click on the related links because they're in a completely different place. I think inline links should be kept to a minimum and only used for relevant stuff like sources."

Pogal says we should make every effort to link to a publication when we are reporting exclusive - pointing out that this may have come from a local or regional journalist. It's hard to disagree with that.

Guide to linking: Megan suggests that, as a growing number of students use the internet for research, we should have "an authoritative article on how to quote, cite and reference material found online" Megan, this looks like a good idea to me - I'd be interested to know what advice you've given to your students, and what other similar guides others know of.

Context: Lastly, David Smith makes a point about the way we provide context on news stories.

"Sometimes I read a news story where the news stops after the first couple of paragraphs and the rest of the page is filled with context. It's right to provide this information, but there seems to be an old-media desire to keep each story standalone, as if in print. In some cases this is entirely appropriate (eg obituaries); in others, I feel it would be better to use a timeline approach: each story tells you what's new and links to a (probably auto-generated) timeline giving you the context."

There's been a discussion about context and journalism at the recent SXSW conference in the US and this is an area we're thinking hard about, both in relation to linking and in general. Any thoughts on this and what you think works best would be welcome.

If you've read this far - thanks for your perseverance, and for taking an interest in how we do things.

The next step for us will be for a few journalists, designers and developers to get together to go through the points above, look at some examples - good and bad, ours and others - and work out what should change. There could be some "quick wins", which I can report back on soon; other things may take a bit longer. I'll keep you posted on how we get on, and we're still interested in your thoughts and ideas on this.

Steve Herrmann is editor of the BBC News website.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    On the academic use of the Internet as a reference, my basic guidance to students is that wh[Unsuitable/Broken URL removed by Moderator]en we read their work, we want to hear what THEY have to say, not someone else's words. However, if they find a pithy quote from an authority on the subject, by all means use it but make it clear that they are quoting (using quotation marks, indenting or emphasis) and say who is being quoted. Likewise if they want to refer to someone else's work that supports what they want to say, use standard academic referencing: "Heathcote (1982) said..." and ensure that the full reference appears in the references list at the end.

    Just like the discussion here about linking, the aim is that someone reading the student's paper can follow up on the background and sources that the student used.

    For referencing a web page, you need the author name, title, date posted and hosting website, plus the date you visited (as websites change!).

    This page would be referenced as:

    Steve Herrmann 'BBC News Linking Policy (2)' on the BBC website, http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/theeditors/2010/04/bbc_news_linking_policy_ii.html, posted 1 April 2010, accessed 1 April 2010.

    In the body of the text I'd refer to "... as Herrmann wrote (2010)..."

    If you want a copy of the full paper I wrote, please drop me a line (I believe you can get my e-mail from my login data, you have my permission to request it) and I'll send it over. [Unsuitable/Broken URL removed by Moderator]

  • Comment number 2.

    The BBC needs to completely rethink the way it publishes feedback from users. At the moment the corporation seems to believe that it is okay to directly link to Twitter and mention its name when doing its 'live' stories and also on some static stories.

    If this is within the guidelines, then why are messages sent by text or email not accompanied by text such as "from Steve using his Vodafone mobile phone" or "from Steve using Yahoo mail"?

  • Comment number 3.

    "Languages: Some of you ask about linking to non-English sites. We are going to add more numerous and prominent links to our own BBC websites in different languages at index level soon. At story level, it depends on the journalist being able to read, check and understand the content he or she is linking to."

    If such links were placed in either info-boxes or as footnotes then surely such linking to non-English sites can be added later, without having to rewrite the original article, when there are people who can check and understand the content of such sites?

    "Dr Lee Hulbert-Williams said we should have more science graduates writing science stories so we don't sensationalise them. We have got specialist journalists and they are well qualified. But they do not write every single science story on the website, because they aren't here 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Wherever possible, though, they do write them, or check them or follow up."

    Whilst I can accept that there might not always be a suitably qualified journalist available 24 hours a day I hardly think that is a valid excuse for the likes of the BBC, only in the most exceptional circumstances would unqualified staff be allowed to operate studio equipment so why allow untrained people to write about things they might not have the first clue about, surely better to postpone publication until one does have a suitably trained journalist (just as one would wait of a trained camera operator or what ever). Surely, better to be first with the correct information than being first with the incorrect information?...

  • Comment number 4.

    You have completely avoided any discussion on why the BBC is happy to give free publicity to linked to web sites - that the web sites concerned would have to pay for if they were linked to on say, Google.

    Why should the licence-fee payer be subsidising the linked-to web site?

  • Comment number 5.

    A very interesting article which confirms the thoroughness with which the revised design of the site is being considered.

    As my small contribution, I have an anecdote about 1960's powerboat racing on the south coast. At the time a participant in the sport was a relative of the owner of the main magazine covering it. Whenever the races were reported the relative was always mentioned though he might have come in 15th or not even completed the race.

    My question: will there be strict editorial guidelines and controls to prevent contrived "puffing" of a particular website so as to justify adding a link to it??

  • Comment number 6.

    Megan: The traditional internet way to do a link is to embed the URL in the link (the "a" tag), not to write it out in full.

    I agree that using the HTML title (or first H1 from the document if there isn't one) from the destination of the link is the best way to link to a URL on another site.

    Automating this helps, I get this for this page

    1) Wikipedia ref format

    <ref>{{cite web|url=http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/theeditors/2010/04/bbc_news_linking_policy_ii.html|title=BBC - The Editors: BBC News linking policy (2)|accessdate=2010-04-01}}</ref>

    2) HTML format

    <a href="http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/theeditors/2010/04/bbc_news_linking_policy_ii.html">BBC - The Editors: BBC News linking policy (2)</a>

    3) Wikipedia basic format

    [http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/theeditors/2010/04/bbc_news_linking_policy_ii.html BBC - The Editors: BBC News linking policy (2)]

    All basically display as

    BBC - The Editors: BBC News linking policy (2)

  • Comment number 7.

    #4. At 7:38pm on 01 Apr 2010, John_from_Hendon wrote:

    "Why should the licence-fee payer be subsidising the linked-to web site?"

    This has a feel of going back to the days of "sticky back plastic" or (worse still) a BBC1 TV play having a very obvious HP sauce bottle on set but with a fictitious label, the BBC are not talking about sponsored links here but website links that have relevance to the news story - listed for the convenience of the reader, many who will also be TVL payers...

  • Comment number 8.

    Boilerplated: I was thinking of posting a link to Jeff Jarvis, and then I realised Webwise was probably a better idea.

  • Comment number 9.

    Re #8: "Briantist", sorry, run that past me again, are you talking about a comment in the previous blog as I can't relate your comment to anything in this blog?!

  • Comment number 10.

    Boilerplated: I was agreeing with #7.

  • Comment number 11.

    Steve.
    Have a word with your journo who wrote the article on Barry Island, its a bloody Fun Fair not a flamming Theme Park for goodness sake.
    When your sens=ding out a memo tell all your other jounos not to use Americanisms such as two time when writing reports.

  • Comment number 12.

    Er, Briantist - what I was explaining was how to reference an Internet site in an academic paper, not how to insert a link into a web page! Sorry to have confused you.

    Steve had asked me about the advice I gave to students on how to quote, cite and reference things they find online... but in the main they are still being required to submit a 'dead-tree' paper (although e-submission methods are on the rise). So I used this page as an example of how to write such a reference, when as you may be holding a bit of paper you need to see the actual URL as if you want to consult the source you will have to type it into your browser.

    Bit tricky when writing in a blog, confused the moderators a bit as well!

  • Comment number 13.

    Megan - most universities and academic institutions will have their own guidance. However, to me this seems to be logical:
    Herrman, S. "BBC News linking policy (2)". 1 April 2010. http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/theeditors/2010/04/bbc_news_linking_policy_ii.htm [cited 2 April 2010]

    I agree with the above commentators who feel that a story should be accurate first, timely second, and sensationalist third. By all tokens allow a journalist to write an article on science findings, but before publishing have it fact-checked. You are non-commercial so being first is not important. You represent the UK and are in-part funded by the Government, especially the Foreign Office, particularly on the global level (BBC World & BBC Monitor) - so accuracy and impartiality are all that matters. If the BBC cannot be trusted, it negatively affects the UK's reputation.

  • Comment number 14.

    #7. Boilerplated wrote:

    "#4. At 7:38pm on 01 Apr 2010, John_from_Hendon wrote:

    'Why should the licence-fee payer be subsidising the linked-to web site?'

    "listed for the convenience of the reader, many who will also be TVL payers..."

    But why should the link target not be asked to pay for the link that it would have to pay for from other sites? Why should the BBC subsidise the advertising of the target? Surely the BBC could consider charging a linked click through fee to the target? (Particularly when if the target is found via say goggle then if a purchased link is clicked the target has to pay for the link click.) Links are advertising - so why should the BBC provide them for free? (And at a cost to the BBC and the Licence fee payer.)

    Many links are just like a paid for advertisement next to a news story and that would most certainly have to be paid for. I really don't see why the BBC could not 'sell' these links (and indeed links to related organisations) just as happens in a newspaper (and google!).

  • Comment number 15.

    #14. At 11:07pm on 02 Apr 2010, John_from_Hendon wrote:

    "But why should the link target not be asked to pay for the link that it would have to pay for from other sites? Why should the BBC subsidise the advertising of the target? ..//.. Links are advertising - so why should the BBC provide them for free?"

    Why not take it even further, why doesn't the BBC charge for carrying any news story that identifies, after all simply mentioning a company / organisation's name is also a form of advertising, even if the news story is negative and the company / organisation would prefer not have the article published in the first place never mind their website being linked to...

    "I really don't see why the BBC could not 'sell' these links (and indeed links to related organisations) just as happens in a newspaper (and google!)."

    Because that is commercialising news, it raises questions as to why story "A" has been carried but story "B" hasn't or if both have, has the 'running order' been affected by commercial interests, especially if article "A" carries more links.

    Sorry but I have to ask this John, why are you so against such links, why are you so determined to drive people to Google (because as you know the BBC would not be allowed to charge for such links, certainly the the bbc.co.uk version and thus under your rational would not be able to carry links), do you need to declare an interested?

  • Comment number 16.

    Re Current Standards for opening in New Windows.

    Surely the point of Standards is that they can be changed/modified to suit a developing role of the BBC website. Just by saying "It's not allowed in the standards to do that" is a cop out. Challenge them.

    If the BBC's technical standards didn't evolve over time, would we still be watching Black and White pictures?

  • Comment number 17.

    This comment has been referred for further consideration. Explain.

  • Comment number 18.

    As a licence fee payer I am entitled to do what ever I want with BBC content, as long as I do not miss-represent the BBC.

  • Comment number 19.

    #18. At 12:52pm on 04 Apr 2010, Dino Joseph wrote:

    "As a licence fee payer I am entitled to do what ever I want with BBC content, as long as I do not miss-represent the BBC."

    Might I suggest that you actually bother to read the back of you TVL...

    The above is as daft as saying that, as a tax payer I can do what ever I like with the property of the MOD, just as long as I don't kill anyone! Just because something is publicly funded it doesn't mean that the public can do as they please.

  • Comment number 20.

    The Editors Blog doesn't get updated as much as it used to

  • Comment number 21.


    I think people need to remember the point of news coverage on the BBC it is purely to entertain the masses.

    There is no point trying to educate about the drug problem in the USA as the knowledge has no practical application for 99% of the audience. It may however be interesting or amusing or both.

  • Comment number 22.

    Apparently Matti Koskimies argues against embedding links within the story on the grounds that ... 'they can distract the reading process because they are in a different colour than the normal text. "You may think of it as insignificant, but it's not. You wouldn't want to read a paper article with random words or partial sentences in blue color either."'
    I think he could probably set his web browser to show links in almost any colour (including the "normal" one); or the BBC could change the colour of linked text in any case. Embedded links are too useful to drop on these grounds!

  • Comment number 23.

    #22: Embedded links are too useful to drop on these grounds!

    Quite. At least they are not underlined!

    I would prefer embedded links, but I've no objection to gathering all the links together in a sidebar as well. Doing both is the best of all worlds (and the sidebar could probably be built automatically from embedded links)

  • Comment number 24.

    22. At 6:12pm on 05 Apr 2010, Llandaff wrote:

    "I think he could probably set his web browser to show links in almost any colour (including the "normal" one);"

    On the other hand those who, at the moment can't cope with referenced (Wikipedia style) footnote or the (current) side bar links could learn how to do such a simple task, rather than expect the majority to suffer at the heels of those who need their hands held all the time...

    "or the BBC could change the colour of linked text in any case. Embedded links are too useful to drop on these grounds!"

    Which would rather defeat the object of inline links to a large extent, how would those who need their hands held to find links know that there are such links present on the page?!

  • Comment number 25.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • Comment number 26.

    Faras I think that's the key... the linked websites have to add value in some way to the public.

    As for Matti's comments about links being distracting because they're a different colour - seriously, this is the web not a broadsheet!

  • Comment number 27.

    Definitely agree with you on that Toonman and @15 Boilerplated - spot on!

    The focus should be on providing a good and balanced experience for the audience. If links help then by all means put them in caveated as appropriate.

 

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