'Why don't journalists link to primary sources?'

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The Telegraph's story on wind farms affecting beaked whales has been corrected. Ben Goldacre used it as an example of how linking to primary sources could have been helpful. (Credit: Telegraph)

Ben Goldacre wondered “Why don’t journalists link to primary sources?” in a recent article for the Guardian’s commentary section, “Comment is Free.”

Goldacre, a journalist and medical doctor, also writes a column called “Bad Science” for the Guardian.

Goldacre argued that by linking to that source, journalists not only provide more information to readers but also allow readers to fact check journalists.  He cited a few examples from British media in which the news media reports didn’t quite match up with the information cited in the original source. Perhaps, Goldacre wrote, journalists would more carefully report if they knew they had to show their work.

One notable example of erroneous reporting was already corrected in part. The UK Telegraph corrected a story claiming that wind farms are part of the reason “whales strand themselves on beaches.”   However, as Goldacre explained, the academic paper cited in the article, “Beaked whales respond to simulated and actual navy sonar”, never brought up wind farms (see here).

“At our most generous, the Telegraph story was a spectacular and bizarre exaggeration of a brief contextual aside about general levels of manmade sound in the ocean by one author at the end of the press release (titled ‘Whales “scared” by sonars’),” Goldacre opined.

In a March 17 correction, the Telegraph noted that “there is no known direct link” between whale strandings and the wind farms.  A University of St. Andrews professor, Ian Boyd, reportedly corrected the Telegraph’s article and noted that his quote in the story was “taken out of context.”

Goldacre suggested that this press release by University of St. Andrews may be how the story originated. That press release says that the sonar sound “used to hunt for submarines” “frightens” beaked whales. Boyd is quoted as saying how human-generated sound in the ocean could “be a much more serious problem” for the whales.

But, if journalists linked to primary sources in articles, inaccurate articles like the Telegraph sonar might be less frequent, Goldacre commented.  “My point is this: if we had a culture of linking to primary sources, if they were a click away, then any sensible journalist would be too embarrassed to see this article go online.”

As another example of an article that didn’t quite match its original source, Goldacre included a professor’s paper linking shorter heels to larger calves and then how a few stories in the UK press linked that study to wearing stiletto heels.

“But more than anything, because linking to 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.”

Knight Science Journalism Tracker’s Paul Raeburn decided to follow in Goldacre’s footsteps and check out science articles in the New York Times and the Washington Post.

While a science story in the Times about canine wrinkles did include a link to the original study behind the article, Raeburn criticized the Times for also linking “to a lot of unhelpful nonsense,” like what a wrinkle and a fever is. Raeburn opined:

“Who on Earth do they think is reading this story? People who are willing to wade through an explanation of the hyaluronan synthase 2 gene but don’t know what a fever or a wrinkle is? What editor is responsible for linking to wrinkles? Stand up and identify yourself!”

In the case of the Post, Raeburn checked out a story about a Nature journal study on “the idea that the Earth is now undergoing its sixth major extinction.”

The story linked to the journal study, but Raeburn said he was “crestfallen” when he noticed at the end of the article that it was a ScienceNOW story, not a Post story.

“This was distressing for two reasons: There was no indication until I got the end of the story that this was not a Washington Post story. Readers need to know that upfront. And Science magazine is a publication of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a pro-science lobbying group. Should the Post be picking up science stories from a politically active science organization? Should it pick up stories on gun control from the NRA? Or on nutrition from the American Dairy Association?”

Note: the post’s former ombudsman, Andy Alexander, called on the Post in December to be more transparent and give more disclosures when it runs stories from writers outside of the Post.  At the time, Alexander was commenting on readers’ complaints about the Post’s publication of a story from nonprofit Center for Public Integrity without identifying what the center is.

Read Goldacre’s column about primary source linking here.

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‘Why don’t journalists link to primary sources?’

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