How to Link to Your Sources (and Why It's Really THAT Important)

3 years ago

"If your momma says she loves you … check it out." That's an old reporters' creed about checking your facts—and whether or not you consider yourself a reporter, you need to keep it in mind as you're writing any nonfiction post. The one key thing you should always do: link your claims of fact to credible sources.

Why to link
  1. It improves your authority as a writer and Expert. Showing that accuracy is important to you, and that you follow journalistic best practices, is a key path to maintaining credibility. It's important to show readers that you've taken responsibility for your facts.
  2. It protects your work. Linking to credible sources is the most responsible way to present facts you haven't researched yourself. By showing that the fact-finding was done by a news source like the New York Times, or that the research was done at, say, Stanford, you're less likely to open yourself up to accusations of libel or misleading the public, because you're not the original source of the report.
  3. It's better for SEO. If you're writing on your own platform, this has direct impact on your reach. If you're working with an editor, you're showing off your professional skills and letting the editor know you care about the company you're writing for.
  4. It's respectful to your reader. You're giving the reader the best possible chance to understand what you're talking about and learn more, if she wants. Encouraging curiosity and helping the reader dig deeper is a sign of a thoughtful, passionate writer who cares about her audience.

When to link

"Blueberries are purplish-blue" or "Barack Obama is the U.S. president" is not a claim of fact: Most people genuinely know these things. But what about "blueberries are powerful antioxidants," or "Barack Obama has a secret love child"?

Link to credible sources every time you're citing claims that, if wrong, would damage or mislead the reader. Health stories, science stories, and news stories (including entertainment news) are particularly important to get right.

If the thing you're talking about actually happened to you, or you observed or researched it, that's firsthand reporting; you don’t need to link it for credibility. And if you're an expert in the field you're writing about, your body of knowledge is certainly a source in itself. But …if your local paper also reported it or a different expert is saying the same thing, linking there after you tell your own story can only back you up and give you more credibility.

What to link to

Your link is only as valuable as the source you're linking to. Search wisely to find credible sources: academic studies, respected news organizations, credentialed experts. The first Google hit (or first page of Google hits) may not be the most authoritative. I recently compiled a list of great journalism resources that can help get you started. Journalists' Toolbox has a huge list of searches to find exactly what you're looking for and a list of expert sources on various topics. Wikipedia's guideline for identifying reliable sources is really comprehensive and worth a look.

If you can only find one report, study, or credentialed expert as a source, say so. Your story will be safer if you can wait until multiple news accounts are reporting the same thing, or multiple studies confirm a theory … if you can. But if you can't, you've covered your bases by noting that information on your fact is still progressing and may change.

Choose the original source whenever you can, rather than a writeup or analysis on another site. It's the most likely place for the information to be updated, it's more likely that the link won't go missing, and it's a professional courtesy.

How to link

The phrase you choose to link matters. It's best for SEO purposes to link to the meaningful phrase ("blueberries are powerful antioxidants"). Don't link to the source, or to things like "according to." Matching the actual claim to the source is easy for your reader to understand, too.

Use language that shows you're attributing the research to your source: "According to the Washington Post, bananas are the most popular fruit in Texarkana." "A study by a team of Harvard astrophysicists concluded that the world will end on February 26, 3277."

You may be writing a post that is not supported by the body of work on a particular fact. Perhaps you're talking about an alternative health treatment, or your belief in a certain diet, or that there were two shooters on the grassy knoll. If your topic runs counter to the majority of studies or sources on a topic, you can still write about it. But you'll undermine your own authority unless you acknowledge the discrepancy and argue your case. You don't need to dwell on it; just make it clear that you are talking about your own thoughts, and tell the reader why. If there are other writers who share your belief, link to their work and use phrases like "I agree with X's belief that …" to show you're not alone.

Linking the right phrase to the right source is really all about giving your reader the best chance to fully buy in to what you're writing … and that's the best way I know to get ahead in the writing game. Try it, and I’m sure you'll agree. And if you run into any roadblocks finding a good source, let me know in the comments and I'll see if I can help!

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