In defence of journalists refusing to include external links in their stories

As journalists, our goals sometimes overlap with yours, but the outcome we’re trying to achieve is fundamentally different – and that's where tensions can arise.

Journalists can't afford to divert readers' attention from their websites with external links, argues Ian Griggs
Journalists can't afford to divert readers' attention from their websites with external links, argues Ian Griggs

I have to respond to yesterday’s comment piece, not least to soothe the nerves of colleagues who were on the point of an aneurism.

The author takes the position that journalists who refuse to include external links in their stories are giving PR and comms professionals a raw deal in the transactional relationship between both.

I write this as someone with more sympathy than most journalists for the trials of PR and comms professionals, having covered this industry for six years. But I also speak with two decades’ experience working in mainstream newsrooms, and from my instincts.

While I agree that the relationship can be transactional at times – depending on how well one knows the contact – I refute the notion that journalists owe it to industry professionals to include external links.

This is why:

First, as you may have heard, the media is in an existential battle for survival; struggling for its place in the attention economy and combating reduced attention spans, while trying to concoct a sustainable model for its future in a world where people expect good journalism for free.

Why, then, would journalists include an external link that serves only to divert their reader’s precious attention away from their own website?

In the new media order, we’re measured not only on how good our stories are, but on how many people visit our sites and, when they do, how long they spend there. With few exceptions, it’s little short of self-harm to send them away again.

Journalists want to draw you in to visiting their sites with a compelling story and keep you there while you discover all the other great things they have written.

Second, linking out – especially to a commercial website – could make the reader think the media outlet at least tacitly endorses the product or service the link leads to, or has a commercial relationship with it, when they are only writing about it.

If your company wants a commercial relationship with a media outlet, the relevant team will be only too willing to work with you, for the reasons stated above – but don’t expect them to give that away for nothing. Mainstream media outlets are already doing that with most of their editorial. What more do you want for free from an industry that's practically on its knees?

By including a link and implying some form of endorsement, the perception of personal disinterest on the part of the journalist – in other words, their independence – is undermined or even lost, making the piece less authoritative.

Ultimately, this is also counterproductive for the client and, as their trusted adviser in these matters, you have to make them see that.

Third, even if individual reporters wanted to include links, most people running editorial teams would overrule them and they would look like they were ‘pandering to PR demands’ if they even asked.

That’s just my professional standing in an editorial team talking, of course; but in my career I’ve encountered some truly terrifying subs and editors, and I would dare you to go and ask one of them face-to-face.

That's also the reason why you might get a ‘Yes’ from the reporter, but not see the result you hoped for in the finished article.

Divergent goals

The primary goal of journalists is to produce stories that engage their outlet’s readership, in a compelling, concise and factually accurate form.

As I understand it, the goal of PR and comms people with a direct media relations function is to convince journalists to write something positive about their organisation, product, or service; to help them understand a subject area before writing about it; or to limit the damage of negative coverage, if possible.

Somewhere in the middle of that Venn diagram, our roles overlap and our goals dovetail – oh, happy day.

You want to tell a story and so do we. But we’re writing it, and you have to trust that we know our readers better than you do – just as you know your campaigns' target audiences better than us.

If we have taken the material you have given us and used the parts of it which support the story we’re trying to write, faithfully and accurately, the ‘transaction’ is complete. Without wishing to sound harsh, we owe you nothing else beyond that.

Are there exceptions? As with any rule, of course there are.

I would feel more comfortable linking to the full version of a report by a non-profit or public sector organisation to enhance the reader’s understanding of a subject and to provide a logical further step, but that’s as far as it goes for me.

In short – and forgive me if I’m blunt (readers who are easily offended or of a nervous disposition should look away now) – it’s not our job to do your job, no matter what your client demands of you. We can’t afford to.

Our job is to write stories; yours is to convince us to write a good story rather than a bad one, or no story at all.

Are we insulted by the request, as the author states?

I’m not insulted when I feel I can politely decline, but I have little patience when the tone of the request sounds like a demand – because, like all my kind, I dislike being 'handled'.

All that being said: there’s no need to be rude about the refusal; that’s just bad manners.

Ian Griggs is associate editor at PRWeek UK

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