The Russian punk band Pussy Riot must have done something really bad to merit a possible seven years in prison, I figured. Finding all descriptions of their behavior to be filled with euphemism, I wanted to see their offensive behavior myself.

Who do you turn to when you want to see the world as it is, rather than the world as others tell you it is? My parents would have turned on network television. Or read the Progress-Bulletin or Daily Report. I went to YouTube and searched for “PussyRiot” and watched what struck me as the video of the actions I had heard about second- and third-hand. The video, I thought, was edited in such a way that made both the church and the band look like victims, depending on your point of view. To me, that was a good indication of its authenticity.

But I don’t really know, and I trust sources like the New York Times, and especially its reporters on the ground in Moscow, to tell me whether what I’m really seeing is accurate. So I next went to nytimes.com and its story. The Times had links to videos. But a quick look around the other five top news sites in the U.S showed that it was the only popular publication that linked to the videos of the band’s action that landed it in prison for three months while awaiting trial. So why was the Times the only source to have linked to the video? And what does that news organization’s unusual behavior mean?

a lack of links

The other sites — Yahoo News, Huffington Post, ABC News, NBC News and USA Today — failed me. These are sites that are both praised and vilified as “aggregators“ or “MSM.” But all made the same editorial decision — and didn’t help their audience see the key fact of this case for itself.

But I wonder why the link wasn’t made? The people who work there are professionals. And I have no reason to believe they are more or less immoral than I am.

Going back more than a decade, academic studies have found that few news stories actually link to source information. In 2001, one in 23 stories about the Timothy McVeigh execution linked to external sources. And a 2010 study indicates that U.S. journalists are less inclined to link to foreign sources than domestic sources, with fewer than 1 percent of foreign new stories on U.S. news sites containing links in their stories.

So, why?

Two prominent academic studies seem to indicate that the presence of inbound and outbound links increase credibility in both professional and amateur sites. Are professional journalists unaware of those studies? Are they aware, but think they’re bunk?

One study indicates that journalists don’t link because they are concerned about the financial implications — that users who leave the site will not return to drive up ad impressions. Another seems to indicate that U.S. journalists are particularly skeptical of foreign sources of news because they are less confident of their own ability to judge the credibility of foreign sources.

enhancing credibility

From my experience in online newsrooms, both those findings seem plausible. But they also seem incomplete. My own additional hypothesis is that hyperlinking has been left primarily to automation and that editors and reporters who’ve been asked for the last decade to “do more with less” have decided that links to original source material — which, at least according to a few studies, enhance their credibility, are not worth their time.

But other studies have shown that hyperlinks in the text of a story distract readers — even the small percentage of readers who click on the links — and reduce reading comprehension. That said, I suspect the journalists who didn’t include links to the Pussy Riots videos are completely unaware of such studies (which are summarized nicely throughout Nicholas Carr’s book “The Shallows.”

If there’s credit to be given in The New York Times’ decision to include the links in the story, then it goes to the reporter in Moscow, David Herzenhorn, according to three sources who work at the Times. The role that Herzenhorn played is important. This was a task not left to an editor or producer in New York, but one that the Moscow correspondent took upon himself. The links add to his credibility.

“I have to say I am completely floored that other news organizations would not link to the videos, since they explain so much about the story,” Kyle Crichton, the editor who worked on the story, wrote to me in response to an email query.

My rather slack Friday afternoon efforts to obtain comment from other news organizations that didn’t link to the videos yielded no responses. I still hope to hear from them in hopes of understanding whether the lack of links was merely an oversight or a conscious omission. Herzenhorn also did not reply to my email on late Friday.

The reporter — and at this point he, rather than his employer, deserves credit for the links — selected the more popular Russian-language versions on YouTube rather than the English subtitled versions, which had fewer views but would be more useful to the Times’ English-language audience.

“There is some profanity on the soundtrack, so I presume that is why David chose not to include [the videos with English subtitles],” Crichton said in his email to me. “That strikes me as fair, since the text isn’t as important as the overall spectacle of their ‘performance.’”

the political impact of linking

I also wondered what the political impact of including such links might be. I’ve had
newsroom conversations about whether linking to a source constitutes endorsement. The modern version of this is manifested in newsroom social media policies that discourage journalists from re-tweeting information from sources and in Twitter bios that say “RT ≠ endorsement.”

I teach my students, and write in Chapter 7 of “Producing Online News,” that links in a story are akin to quotes. You’re responsible for the facts of the source’s statement, but not the opinions. And stories without links today seem as incomplete as stories without quotes from named sources have always been.

In foreign stories, though, links to banned material could have an effect on both the news
organization’s ability to distribute news and on its reporters’ ability to collect it. Crichton wasn’t concerned.

“I don’t think our including the videos will have any impact on our future ability to report in Russia,” Crichton said in his email to me. “If it were Iran, maybe, but Russia isn’t like that, yet.”

What discussion to you have in your newsroom about including or excluding links? If you aren’t having any, consider consulting with — and funding — the mass communication researchers who can help you make your journalism more credible, more memorable and more useful.

Related links:

Ryan Thornburg researches and teaches online news writing, editing, producing and reporting as an assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has helped news organizations on four continents develop digital editorial products and use new media to hold powerful people accountable, shine light in dark places and explain a complex world. Previously, Thornburg was managing editor of USNews.com, managing editor for Congressional Quarterly’s website and national/international editor for washingtonpost.com. He has a master’s degree from George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management and a bachelor’s from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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