Martha’s Rules for Attribution
Establishing Digital Credibility: Eight Rules
1. Link to credible sources.
This is the Prime Directive, if you’re a Star Trek fan. Even if you’re not, it’s the most basic rule of my digital universe. Don’t link to Wikipedia entries or anything else with anonymous bylines or unnamed editors.
The link I inserted on “Prime Directive” includes no byline, for example, but if you go to the About page of the Fandom site, you’ll come across a masthead for its “Content Team,” complete with Twitter handles for each editor.
Part of your job as a writer is to present information to readers from credible sources—and pinning down the real person or organization behind that information is crucial to establishing credibility. Whether a given source is credible may be open to debate, but making clear to readers where you’re getting your facts from is not.
2. Do the explaining yourself.
Don’t assume readers will click on links to information or watch a video you’ve embedded. Most won’t. If you name an event or celebrity (for example) as evidence, explain why this thing or [person is relevant in your own words.
It’s okay to insert a link on a name that will lead readers to additional information—as I did with “Prime Directive” above. But don’t do this as a way to avoid explaining the basics yourself. That’s a form of voice hijacking, and it undercuts your authority and your credibility.
3. Include orienting details for news sources.
When you link to reports from news sources (everything from the New York Times to Vice to academic journals), include orienting details in your attribution—such as date of the article, name of the magazine, title of the article, name of the reporter. These who-what-when details often provide necessary context for readers. Again, don’t assume they’ll click through to the original article to find out such details.
You don’t always have to provide an article title or a reporter’s name in online attribution. But at the very least, the date of a given news story or research study is usually relevant to readers. Always keep in mind what readers need to know in order to find you credible as a writer. Otherwise, they might as well just read the original news story.
4. Balance general and specific attribution tags.
“Experts say” or “research reveals” are general attribution tags. Depending on the topic of a story and your audience, they can work as attribution, especially if you link to a specific research source. Even in that case, though, insert a link on more than generic words like “research” (see Example 1 below).
In addition, you’ll sound more authoritative if you follow general attribution—which can indicate the scope of a problem—with a link to a specific research source (see Example 2). Using attribution in this way is connected to explaining evidence in your own words and providing necessary context for readers.
Many experts point to the growing problem of social-media obsession. In a 2014 article in Psychology Today, Larry Rosen reports on his study of social-media use in different age groups. One striking finding: regardless of age, more than 30 percent of the Facebook users surveyed checked it at least once an hour to like and read posts.
5. Make the source clear for pullquotes.
For quotes you highlight as a design element, make sure readers know the source. When you highlight your own words in a pullquote, there’s no need to cite yourself—readers will assume the words come from you and your article.
But if you’re quoting somebody else, your citation should name that person and point to a specific source you’ve cited elsewhere. That’s particularly true if the pullquote text doesn’t appear in your article. For example:
Even 40 percent of Baby Boomers have a Facebook account
— Larry Rosen (Psychology Today)
6. Use links visually—they’re a design element, too.
Beyond pullquotes, you can format text in a way that’s meant to draw a reader’s eye through the story. Like headings, links are also visual cues—and it helps to think of their visual impact on readers beyond the meaning of the words.
Think about how you skim a web story or article. Readers do skim, no matter how beautifully written the prose is, so this is where content really connects with design. When you use links to highlight your sources, you’re not only establishing your own digital credibility—you’re helping readers take in, at a glance, the most relevant facts in the right sequence.
7. Match your linking and reference style to the type of story.
That said, not every digital story requires hyperlinks or an array of attribution tags. If you’re telling a personal story or writing in a more literary way, you may not want to insert links throughout an article. When you insert a lot of hyperlinks, readers tend to focus on facts, as if it’s a news article, rather than on the story itself.
The key is to determine what kind of story you’re telling. With the personal nonfiction we publish at Talking Writing, for instance, we decided we didn’t want links in pieces that bounced readers off a page. Instead, we include attribution and orienting details, where appropriate, and links in reference notes at the end in a “Publishing Information” section.
Academic papers also have a specific format, and if that’s your audience, reference sections at the end of an article make sense. I’d avoid using footnotes in online articles, however, especially those meant for general readers.
8. Be intentional about attribution.
I’m a great believer in providing readers with as much attribution as possible, especially online. And yet, too much attribution or emphasis on sources can be eye glazing. So, don’t let the need for attribution scare or confuse you.
Instead, make a plan for what you want readers to take away. Then insert links and attribution tags, as needed, to direct them through the story. The rules above emphasize strategies for doing just that. But above all, you need to decide what information will matter most to readers—and what matters most to you:
- Don’t let other experts hijack your story.
- Speak directly to readers about what you know and don’t know.
- Take responsibility for providing convincing evidence.
- Be intentional and specific about the facts—and readers will follow you.
Digital Truth Pledge
Let’s fight for digital credibility together. Make a public commitment with me to accurate information online.