Saturday, March 19, 2011

Why don't journalists link to primary sources?

The question was posed on Hacker News, and was based on a Guardian article lamenting sloppy reporting in the Daily Mail and Telegraph.

It prompted me to write the following response in the Hacker News thread:

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 ( ) 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.

The debate reminded me of my "Source Blocks" idea from 2008. It never caught on, for the simple reason that most writers (including me) are too lazy to manually include them. But that could be an opportunity for another new media product ...

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