Location, Location, Location
By Julie Gammill Gibson
Julie Gammill Gibson is a former AJR editorial assistant.
It seems like a no-brainer: When doing a story about a World Wide Web site, tell the reader or listener where to find it.
But the question of when to give out a Uniform Resource Locator, or URL – a home page or e-mail address – is still muddy territory for the media as style and usage rules are being formed in an effort to keep up with evolving technology.
"Usually people want their online sites listed, that's why they're online," says Jon Katz, media critic for Wired magazine. But, he adds, some owners of Web sites or e-mail addresses, "for privacy reasons or for creative reasons, don't want people stopping by."
Katz suggests that journalists make decisions about providing URLs on a case-by-case basis, considering privacy issues, such as whether the Web site owner is a child, if the person has a hidden agenda or "if somebody didn't want to give access to everybody on the 'Net." He also recommends that reporters ask the source directly whether or not it's OK to mention the site.
But Nathan Cobb, staff writer for the Boston Globe's living/arts section, says there is really no ethical dilemma involved in the decision to provide URLs because Web sites and their addresses are "already in the public domain."
In a story about a Northeastern University student's home page, Cobb left out the URL, but he never had an option. The student had already deleted his home page of sexually explicit photographs. Nevertheless, the controversial story raised the issue of whether and when reporters and editors should include Web site locations in articles.
Peter Lewis, a former New York Times editor who now freelances on cyberspace issues for the newspaper, says, "I would
not point to any Web sites that contain material that I would not print in the paper version of the Times." He adds that if the content of a Web site was not appropriate for publication and nevertheless dealt with a newsworthy issue, he would still write about it, but without listing the URL.
At the Columbus Dispatch in Ohio, a June 19 wire story mentioning a pasta company's home page ran in the business section – minus information on the site's location, says Gerald Tebben, the Dispatch's business editor and a columnist for the paper's Sunday "Internet Business Log." That prompted Andrew Murphy, one of the newspaper's managing editors, to initiate an informal style ruling that URLs should be included in all stories on specific Web sites, according to Tebben.
Even if a URL is missing from a story, readers can readily access Web browser programs such as Mosaic and Netscape. But Tebben says browsing for a Web site without knowing the URL isn't always easy.
National Public Radio is experimenting with directing listeners to e-mail addresses. Following each part of NPR's July series, "Democracy in America," listeners were given a URL for getting more information. The series' July 10 installment on civic journalism drew more than 150 e-mail responses from listeners in a single day, according to John Dinges, editorial director for NPR News.
But NPR doesn't require reporters to tell listeners where to find home pages discussed on the air, Dinges says. This was apparent during a June "All Things Considered" broadcast, in which host Noah Adams introduced listeners to Glenn Davis, a World Wide Web enthusiast who chooses a "Cool Site of the Day" on the Internet. Adams and Davis sat before a computer and discussed Davis' cool sites, such as an Internet variation of "The Dating Game." But the story missed an important consideration for Web fans: how to find the cool-site guy's site.