Why don’t journalists link to primary sources? Would it matter?

I’ve wondered this myself as I’ve been frequently frustrated by journalists’ vague references to studies, so vague in fact that I have had trouble finding the study. Phrases like, “A new study by Harvard scholars reveals that …” is just not that helpful. In an online version of an article or column, the journalist (or the news organization) could and should link to the study. In print, the standards of reference could be much better: include the study title, authors’ names, and institution or journal name. Typically only the latter is included. Often it’s not enough!

At Bad Science, Ben Goldacre thinks there can be a more sinister motive.

Why don’t journalists link to primary sources? Whether it’s a press release, an academic journal article, a formal report, or perhaps (if everyone’s feeling brave) the full transcript of an interview, the primary source contains more information for interested readers, it shows your [sic] working, and it allows people to check whether what you wrote was true. Perhaps linking to primary sources would just be too embarrassing.

He goes on to illustrate how some journalists’ interpretations of studies are, well, highly creative. The studies do not support what the journalists had written. It’s rather embarrassing, or would be if anyone checked. Are journalists hiding behind their vague citations, hoping nobody will dig deeper?* Goldacre concludes,

Over and again, you read comment pieces that purport to be responding to an earlier piece, but distort the earlier arguments, or miss out the most important ones: they count on it being inconvenient for you to check. It’s also an interesting difference between different forms of media: most bloggers have no institutional credibility, and so they must build it, by linking transparently, and allowing you to easily double check their work.

But more than anything, because linking sources is such an easy thing to do, and the motivations for avoiding links are so dubious, I’ve detected myself using a new rule of thumb: if you don’t link to primary sources, I just don’t trust you.

That’s an interesting take. Are bloggers more credible or does the medium impose more incentives to behave in credibility enhancing ways due to the norms of linking? I’m not so sure. My experience is that people generally don’t follow links. If they do, and call you out on an error, they’d have to be high profile bloggers to make a dent in your credibility. Still, it could be done, and the links are the first step in keeping the writer honest.

However, based on what I’ve observed, what I’m tempted to conclude is that a certain way of writing and linking gives the appearance of credibility. If you can cite studies, quote from them, and link to them, most readers are convinced you’re the real deal. Few will check that you actually are. I wish more would. If you see something contrarian or that sounds a little fishy, dig deeper. Chances are there’s more to the story. Goldacre is right. The first step is to demand that journalists and bloggers provide enough information to find their sources of evidence. The next step is for readers to actually avail themselves of it and hold the journalists and bloggers accountable.

* Journalists are not all the same. Some do link to full transcripts and original sources. Many of the ones I cite most often do so. They’re the good ones. I wish more were like them.

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