Jonathan Stray has a great essay up at Nieman Lab entitled “Why link out? Four journalistic purposes of the noble hyperlink”. I basically agree with all of it; links are wonderful things, and the more of them that we see in news stories — especially if they’re external rather than internal links — the better.

It’s very easy to agree that if a story refers to some other story or document, and if that other story or document is online, then it should be hyperlinked. But Stray goes further than that:

In theory, every statement in news writing needs to be attributed. “According to documents” or “as reported by” may have been as far as print could go, but that’s not good enough when the sources are online.

I can’t see any reason why readers shouldn’t demand, and journalists shouldn’t supply, links to all online resources used in writing a story.

Tellingly, Stray provides no hyperlinks at all for his assertion that “every statement in news writing needs to be attributed”. Is this really true? It certainly isn’t in the UK, where I come from. What’s more, even before the WSJ got taken over by foreign marauders like Rupert Murdoch and Robert Thomson, it followed this rule mostly just by inserting the stock phrase “according to people familiar with the situation” into any story. That phrase, of course, tells the reader exactly nothing.

In recent days, a debate has emerged online on what I consider to be two very different subjects, which are getting unhelpfully elided. The first question, raised by MG Siegler, is whether outlets like the WSJ have an obligation to say who first broke a piece of news, when they report that news. The second question, which is often mistaken for the first, is whether outlets like the WSJ should link to outside sources of information.

To the second question, my answer is simple: yes. But look at the story by Jessica Vascellaro about Apple acquiring Chomp. There’s only one part of that story which obviously needs a hyperlink, if such a thing were available, and that’s in the first sentence, where we’re told that Apple said it has acquired Chomp. If there’s some kind of public press release from Apple saying such a thing, then the WSJ should link to it. But there isn’t, so the lack of any link there is forgivable.

What Siegler wants is for extra text to be added in to Vascellaro’s story, saying that he first broke the news. And I’m pretty sure that Stray would want the same thing — after all, Vascellaro’s own tweet does imply that she first got wind of the story online, before confirming it with Apple. If it was Siegler’s article which caused Vascellaro to call Apple, then Siegler certainly counts as an online resource used in writing the WSJ story, and should therefore, by Stray’s formulation, be fully linked and credited.

On the other hand, if Stray agrees with Siegler, that doesn’t mean that Siegler agrees with Stray. Siegler cited no source at all, named or anonymous, for his scoop that Apple had bought Chomp: he simply asserted the fact. “Apple has bought the app search and discovery platform Chomp, we’ve learned.” If every statement in news writing needs to be attributed, then Siegler just failed that test.

But I don’t think it does. If you attribute a statement like that to “sources familiar with the situation”, or something along those lines, then the attribution looks a lot like a CYA move. Consider the difference between (a) “Apple has bought Chomp”, and (b) “Apple has bought Chomp, say sources familiar with the situation”. Technically speaking, if the sale falls through, then (a) is false, while (b) was actually true. In that sense, failing to provide attribution is a way of sticking your neck out and asserting news to be a fact. Here’s Siegler:

I reported the Apple acquisition of Chomp as a fact for good reason — It. Was. A. Fact. If I had reason to believe it may not be a done deal or not 100% certain, I would have said that. I did not because I didn’t need to.

Felix Salmon is an Audit contributor. He's also the finance blogger for Reuters; this post can also be found at Reuters.com.