Your Online Reputation

Your coworker's car just broke down, and she wants to know if you can recommend a good mechanic. Or maybe the scenario is reversed: you need a job, so you ask your neighbor if he knows of anything within his company. Either way, the situation relies on someone's perception of quality and reliability. If the mechanic makes a mess of your coworker's car, your reputation will suffer for recommending him; if you make a mess of the job your neighbor gets you, his reputation will suffer. It's an old story.

But say you're writing an article for online publication—it doesn't matter if it's a well-known Web site or a lesser-known blog in this case—and you're quoting or paraphrasing others and providing links to those sources. That's standard operating procedure, but what do those links say about you? Assuming you aren't ridiculing someone and including links just so others can participate in the roast, it's possible your sources will be perceived as recommendations of a sort, much as the favorites links on your site are. Absent any overt explanation to the contrary, readers will probably assume the links associated with your article are, if not an endorsement, at least factually reliable.

Evidently, the ethics questions surrounding the mundane act of including external links in a published article is a hot-button issue among online writers. At a recent conference at The Poynter Institute, it seems the ethics-of-links debate came to the forefront of the general online-ethics focus of the symposium. According to Rick Edmonds' analysis of the event, the issue is essentially one of reputation.

If you provide a link to an external source, what are you saying about its reliability, taste and transparency?

On the one hand, participants agreed, links represent a core strength of the Web with potential to make any entry richer and more complete. Traditional commercial concerns about sending customers to external sites no longer make sense as a rationale for staying out of the linking game altogether.

But if accuracy, transparency (about where the information is coming from) and taste are ethical values of an organization -- and part of what the "brand" stands for -- how should those values inform decisions about links? Isn't linking to below-standard material just another way of publishing it?

There are further complicating factors. Links to such recent hot potatoes as the Nicholas Berg beheading or the anti-Islamic Danish cartoons were generally rejected on grounds of taste. But, as James Brady of The Washington Post and other participants asked, isn't it something of a cop-out if you let readers know where they can find the sensitive material online while withholding the clickable link?

Balancing the positive aspects of including links has to be weighed against the possible negatives. If the links you provide lead readers to unexpected unsavory content, hearsay, or otherwise unreliable sources, your reputation—and that of your employer, if you're writing for pay—could be forever tarnished. On the other hand, there are situations in which the need to bring out the facts requires an unblinking eye; the truth isn't always pretty.

The way I see it, this isn't so much a linking issue per se as one of integrity in general. I've always thought that there are essentially two kinds of people in this world: those who care, and those who do not. If you’re the sort of person who sweats the details—whether or not anyone is looking over your shoulder—you aren't going to go completely out of character just because you happen to be publishing something online. If you're uncomfortable with a link, it probably isn't going to make it into your finished product anyway, at least not without some sort of disclaimer.

For someone who cares about quality and reliability for their own sake, it seems online publishing—whether it takes the form of a private blog or a large-scale media product—would be likely to reflect the same integrity as something published in the older, more traditional way. The medium won't undermine the message.


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