In an era of fake news, content trust and authority depend more than ever on a few basic journalism rules.
One of the top 100 sites on the Internet in terms of audience has a message board section with quite a few posts about politics. One poster refers to many sites as sources of information. Most of the sites have the following characteristics:
- Private domain registration, meaning the owner is hidden.
- No contact page.
- No terms of service.
- Fake bylines: ZeroPointNow, Knave Dave, Kim DotCom.
- No attribution of sources. In fact, no sources at all.
- No apparent editing based on the quality of the writing.
- No labels for opinion and advocacy.
The first four attributes are unique to the online environment. The next four are traditional journalism rules that go back more than a century.
The first four also apply to the site as a whole and influence search engine rankings. The next four are specific to content on the site.
Imagine a stranger saying that a Facebook post claimed a massive bomb has gone off in New York City. Instead, imagine a sister or brother saying the same thing, but the source of the information was a film clip on a major cable news channel.
Do both people generate an equal amount of trust? It is unlikely. The first person is unknown and uses a unverifiable source of information from a social network. The second person is known, attributes the source from a news network and witnessed the film. The first source has no editor to improve quality and accuracy. The second one has gone through a professional editing process.
Content Authority Depends on People First
Online content has two audiences: people and search engines. Publishers often are quick to focus on search engines rankings and results. But the search engines look for site attributes with people in mind because people use those search engines.
A searcher clicks on a link high in search results and immediately leaves that site because of poor quality and inaccurate information. That searcher is less likely to trust the search engine and may go to another one. For their own sake, search engines need to rank sites based on trust and authority.
So it benefits publishers to follow both the site-wide steps that build site authority and content steps that build the related content authority.
Publishers can simply look at their own sites to see if they follow the above eight rules. If they don’t, it’s an easy problem to fix. The first four are one-time efforts. The second four are continuous efforts that require a small amount of extra time.
Professional Journalism Ethics
The Society of Professional Journalists has a code of ethics that is useful for site publishers who want to build content authority. The code includes the following with my own perspectives:
– Display labels for advocacy and commentary. Note this matters on sites with news and not for sites with all advocacy and commentary.
– Don’t deliberately distort facts or context. Bias is a natural part of human behavior. True journalism fights the inherent bias, although it doesn’t always succeed.
– Never plagiarize. Always attribute. Plagiarism is a bigger problem online than in print because it is so easy to copy and paste. But the original source might be wrong. Look for credible sources and attribute those sources. If the article is wrong, it’s because the source is wrong.
– Provide access to relevant source material when appropriate. Adding even one link to an original source is simple and easy.
– Identify sources clearly. The full and accurate name of the source is useful to readers and may even benefit search rankings. A link to the source’s website is even better.
– Take responsibility for being accurate. Verify facts before publishing them. Use original sources as much as possible. The use of bylines and contact forms will motivate authors to be responsible, attribute sources and verify facts. No credible writers want the world to know they have published falsehoods out of laziness or incompetence.