The Thorny Question of Linking

Writer's note: This article covers the issue of news websites linking (or not) to content that they wouldn't publish directly themselves. To comply with Poynter Online's policy of generally not naming (or linking to sites that name) accusers in sexual assault cases, I have not included such links.

Hypertext links -- one of the most powerful tools of Internet publishing -- can enable journalists to add context, humor, multimedia, and other dimensions to their stories in ways never available on legacy platforms. But links can also complicate journalistic decision making in ways never imagined in the days before the World Wide Web. 
Consider this: The woman who accuses Kobe Bryant of raping her requests that the media not identify her by name, despite adding her name (by a judge's order) to her civil lawsuit against the NBA star. While a handful of news organizations have begun to publish her name, most still don't.  But online editors working for newsrooms that have decided not to publish the name face an additional question: under what circumstances might they link to sites that do include the name?

The woman's name is published far and wide on the Internet. Want to know her real name and see her photo? Google can get that for you in the space of a few seconds. Sites that choose not to name (and that includes this one) may succeed in marginally slowing down those who want to know her name, but they're hardly standing in the way. Users can go to any Web search engine and find out in a flash.

Or consider this: Islamic militants continue to behead Westerners in Iraq and post videos of the grisly acts on the Web. No mainstream news organizations are publishing the videos directly, but a small number of news websites have provided links to other websites where the beheading videos can be found. Non-news sites of various stripes do publish links to the videos, and some have copied the originals and offer video streams from their own servers.

As with the name of Bryant's accuser, Google can point you to those beheading videos in seconds. Most news organizations are expressing their publishing standards by protecting their audience from seeing extremely disturbing images -- by not offering links to the videos. But again, Internet users can find the videos quickly and easily.

News organizations, it would seem, no longer can shield the public from disturbing content -- or protect rape victims or accusers from public scrutiny -- in the way they once could. They no longer are effective gatekeepers, shielding their audiences from material deemed too sensitive, controversial, or disgusting. All they can do on the Internet -- using whatever ethical guidelines they choose --  is to regulate their own small slice of cyberspace.

Should you link to [name withheld]?

The linking issue is front and center at news websites thanks to the latest development in the Bryant case. After his accuser added her name to the re-filed civil lawsuit against the basketball player, Denver's Rocky Mountain News decided that it was in the public interest to identify her by name. It did so in its October 14 print edition and on its website.

News editor John Temple explained the rationale: "As a general rule, the News names plaintiffs in civil lawsuits. Here, both sides' personal integrity and credibility are at issue and the News believes fairness requires that both parties be named in reporting on this civil lawsuit." He elaborated in an e-mail interview with Poynter Online.

Subsequently, a few other mainstream news organizations have begun using the woman's name -- including Fox News and the Los Angeles Daily News. Her name and photo have run on the cover of the tabloid the Globe (which can quickly be found on the Web). Her name also can be found online on copies of court documents and on numerous personal websites (many of the latter profane) devoted to the case.

With that history, what do you do as an editor at a news organization that still adheres to a policy of not identifying rape accusers? Is it appropriate to link to other sites that do identify Bryant's accuser? If you're writing a story about her identity being revealed in the media -- without naming her yourself -- does it make sense to link to the Rocky Mountain News story that published the name?

Those are very tough questions to answer, says Robert Berkman, co-author (with Christopher Shumway) of the book "Digital Dilemmas: Ethical Issues for Online Media Professionals" (Iowa State Press) -- perhaps even more tricky than deciding whether to link to controversial content such as beheading videos.

Berkman says that such decisions nearly always require not blind adherence to newsroom policy, but a meeting of newsroom editors for discussion. In effect, he points out, providing a link to the Rocky Mountain News' story that first named her, for instance, is going back on your stated ethical standards of protecting rape accusers by not naming them. Yet your final decision may not be as simple as saying no to linking simply because something de facto identifies Bryant's accuser.

Mainstream news organizations no longer are the sole protector of individuals like Bryant's accuser, Berkman says. Forces outside of newspaper and TV newsrooms have already decided that she will be known to the public. Among the questions still facing editors is whether and how naming this person will serve its audience. If her name is not essential to the coverage, then editors might decide to continue protecting her within their media realm.

Online editors' dilemma

What do online editors think about this issue? Online news editor Dale Singer of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says that if his site (which has not named her yet) would not name her as a matter of policy, then he would not link to any other website that did. "Savvy Web users can find it on their own," he says, "and I am not using the name on principle. I don't want to violate that principle in such a coy but transparent way."

Then again, nothing is that black and white. Should a story on another site that named her have "valuable information that I thought my readers should have, I'm not sure how I would proceed," Singer says. "I guess it would depend on whether they could get that information elsewhere where the name was not available."

Robert Niles, the former editor of the Rocky Mountain News' website and now editor of Online Journalism Review, is comfortable with letting readers discover the identity of Bryant's accuser on their own.

"If, as a news organization, you are going to accept the argument that people are going to find the victim's name on Google anyway, you might as well just go ahead and name her," he says. "But if your organization is taking a stand that it is not going to be part of publicizing her name, I don't think that your organization ought to be direct linking to documents and sites that do name her. Be consistent. Sure, people can find that information on Google. Let them. But your organization need not do that work for them."

The same principle should apply to "soft linking," Niles says -- that is, telling your Web readers where to find the information but not providing a direct link to it. "If your organization has decided that you are not going to spread some sort of information, why would you direct folks where to find it?"

Linking to the unthinkable

The linking issue as it relates to the Kobe Bryant case is a slightly different question than publishing links to controversial or shocking content. As Berkman points out, editors taking the stance of not publishing the Bryant accuser's name or links to websites that include her name are doing so ostensibly to protect the woman (who already has been the subject of death threats).

But when it comes to deciding not to publish links to shocking content, the issue is about protecting your audience from something you believe will be harmful to them.

Online editors worldwide are now faced with what to do with the Web videos of beheadings by Islamic terrorists. While no mainstream news organizations have posted copies of the videos directly on their websites, there have been instances where they have published links to the many other websites that do carry the videos or provide links to them.

This week, the website of the Mail & Guardian newspaper in South Africa published a link to another website that carries a video showing the beheading of British citizen Kenneth Bigley in Iraq, the first time it has included such a link. The link came at the end of a column by Vincent Maher on the topic of terrorists using the Web to distribute images of beheadings they have carried out.

Mail & Guardian Online editor Matthew Buckland says he has come to the conclusion that linking to a beheading video can be appropriate on the Web when it's an integral part of a story, "is newsworthy, and brings home the horror and chaos on the ground in Iraq, contrary to what many politicians are saying" -- but not if it's merely sensational.

Buckland's principal argument is one that many an online editor will understand: the Web is a very different medium than newsprint or TV, where different ethical choices are reasonable options. "By actively clicking on the link we provide to the video stream," he says, "the user is making more of a conscious choice to view what is behind the link and therefore, we feel is taking a greater responsibility."

He does not support the idea of TV stations carrying the video because viewers don't have a choice, other than turning off the set. The South African Broadcasting Corporation carried the video of the beheading of American Eugene Armstrong in September -- an action for which it was fined and later apologized.

With such controversial content now widely available on the Web, will mainstream news organizations feel pressured to loosen the reins? The Mail & Guardian episode suggests so.

Few news organizations are likely to directly post beheading videos or the graphic transcripts of Kobe Bryant's interview with detectives investigating rape charges against him (which are available on the website The Smoking Gun). But we likely will see more news websites link to such content, now that sites such as the Mail & Guardian have led the way.

Digital Ethics author Berkman says there should be limits on what news sites will link to. "I don't think anything goes -- that just because it's out there you can link or point to it," he says. "You should always keep your higher mission in mind." The bottom line: Is this useful and informative? Is it meaningful?

Think about your audience, Berkman advises, and about why they come to your website. Perhaps part of the reason is the standards that you publish by day to day. Stepping over the taste line could hurt you.

The merits of 'soft linking'

In his book, Berkman points out that there are techniques short of linking that can let people know about the existence of controversial content. For instance, I could:

  • Tell you that videos and photos of beheadings can be found at, but not provide a link to that site.
  • Provide a link to that site, but include a brief parenthetical warning message next to the link -- clearly warning you in advance of the objectionable content you'll see if you click.
  • Publish the URL, but not make it a link.
  • Publish a link but introduce an intermediary screen, which would briefly discuss what you'll see if you click another time.
  • Do more storytelling, explaining and describing the material on, knowing that you can figure out for yourself if you want to seek out that site on the Web.

"Ultimately," Berkman wrote in his book, "solutions to the linking dilemma will vary according to each organization's journalistic and social values, the sensibilities of its audience, and the size of its editorial staff. Whatever the approach, consistency in applying it could serve journalists within the organization well; they would not have to navigate turbulent ethical waters without a guide."

When you don't want to just link

Finally, here's an innovative solution specific to the beheading videos dilemma as suggested by Mail & Guardian columnist Maher: Don't link, but actually use the videos on your site in edited form.

Journalists can treat them as sort of "press releases" from the terrorists -- they are, after all, propaganda messages of a sort -- "then make different versions that tell the story in the way that the journalist wants to and then host them off the news site the story is told on," Maher suggests. TV stations already edit these videos and often show the hostage and his captor up to the point of execution. "Why do online media not do this?" says Maher. "In many ways they have a much more flexible medium to work with, with many more possibilities, and everyone is in a huff about what to do with this video."

Of course, the case could be made that showing any the terrorists' videos serves their propaganda purpose and should be avoided by media. Or the argument might be that not letting your audience see any of the terrorists' brutality serves a different type of propaganda -- that of the U.S. government and its military, both hoping to portray the Iraq situation as under control, says Maher.

As this article suggests, there are no simple answers. Online editors increasingly face truly difficult ethical news decisions these days.

CORRECTION: The South African Broadcasting Corporation aired video of the beheading of American Eugene Armstrong, not Kenneth Bigley, as originally reported in this piece.

  • Steve Outing

    Steve Outing is a thought leader in the online media industry, having spent the last 14 years assisting and advising media companies on Internet strategy and being on the bleeding edge of media trends.


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