Hot links …get your hot links…

There is an old saying in both cooking and politics that no one wants to see how the sausage is made. And while this old saw, on the culinary side, is probably unfair to good quality sausage and sausage makers, it rings true, because often the process that gets us to the final product is messy and unpleasant to look at. It is also an apt analogy for how we take in information in the digital era.

Most articles, columns, and op-eds posted online, whether on all digital platforms or on the digital side of traditional news and print media, usually contain links to other reporting, analysis, and/or opinion. These in text citations, known as links, allow readers to go and review the source material for fact and truth claims, analyses, and opinions. Linking this way is an effective and efficient tool for the reader, but only if the reader uses them and engages with the source material in a critical way.

A few days ago, The New York Times published an article on former Vice President Biden. It was an exploration of his time as a junior senator, his connections to the then previous generation of senior Democratic senators and the effect of those relationships on his legislative positions on criminal justice in the 1980s and 1990s. The relationships explored are specifically with those Democratic senators from what was then the southern, conservative, and segregationist wing of the Democratic Party.

There are a number of flaws with the article, such as it eluded much of the history of both the Democratic and Republican Parties’ demographic compositions and changes over time in the 20th century, as well as the very different American societal attitudes in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s towards crime, justice, and criminal justice than what we have today. While these problems in the reporting are, themselves, important, what I really want to focus on is a linking issue. Or, rather, an issue about the links The New York Times reporters used as text citations to their source material.

My good friend Tom Levenson, a professor of science writing* at MIT, identified two significant links as citation problems in the article. Specifically that an earlier New York Times article with citation links as evidence for their argument does not actually contain the information they assert. That link was offered  as support for their reporting and the conclusions they draw from their reporting regarding Vice President Biden’s relationship with these much more senior Democratic senators (who were southern conservative segregationists) and the effect that these relationships had on then Senator Biden’s legislative positions.

By clicking through on the links and reading the earlier reporting, Professor Levenson identifies that the source material the reporters are citing in support of their reporting never actually makes these claims or supports their assertion of influence in this new reporting. He also identifies that The New York Times’ reporters assert another truth or factual claim, with links as citations to The Washington Post and CNN reporting that are not actually substantiated in that reporting. Here too, Professor Levenson clicked through, read the cited material, and was able to quickly recognize that it was being misrepresented.

While the ‘linking as citation’ issue that Professor Levenson has identified is troubling in terms of potential political coverage of the ongoing Democratic primary and the eventual 2020 general election campaigns, it is important for another reason.

How many of you readers actually click through the links in the news you read? Do you click through the links, as in text citations, regardless of whether you are reading it here at The Ark Valley Voice, or at The New York Times or The Washington Post or The Wall Street Journal or CNN or Fox News or on your Twitter feeds or Facebook pages?

If you do click through, do you actually read the article or just the headline, the summary above the byline, and, perhaps the first couple of paragraphs? Clicking through links as in-text citations provides all of us with the opportunity to be more critical thinkers and to better evaluate the truth and factual claims made in reporting, analysis, and op-eds regardless of where we are encountering the information. They make it easier then ever to check sources and source material, but only if we click through and actually read what is at the link.

Otherwise we are all just consuming the links without knowing where the sausage is coming from, or how it is made. And to quote Alton Brown, ‘that’s not good eats!’

* A professor of science writing teaches journalists how to better write about scientific research and findings so their reporting on science is more accessible to the general public.