BBC News linking policy (2)
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.
I 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.
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:
"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.