The importance of provenance

News, like art, requires provenance.

I tweeted that today, joining in a conversation between Dan Gillmor and Jay Rosen as they tried to understand how the Washington Post could quote only unnamed complainers in its McChrystal story. Tweeted Jay: “We’re supposed to trust it because the Washington Post ran it. And that’s the problem. It gives us no other grounding for trust.” In the Post’s view, then, its brand provided all the provenance needed: it was the source for trust. But in our view, we expect to know where these opinions came from. We want to go to the source.

Provenance is becoming more important in many fields I’ll outline in a moment. Why? Because it’s possible. And because it’s possible, it becomes expected. The link enables provenance: click here to see the source. The web enables provenance: search here to find out where this came from. The link economy requires provenance: link to support journalism at its source. The link ethic demands provenance. Period.

The journalistic and conversational ethic of provenance I’ve learned especially in blogs is that one must link to one’s sources…
* So I show my work and so you may judge and understand it accordingly.
* So the reader may judge my sources: “Don’t take my word for it,” the link says, “click and see for yourself.”
* So the reader may dig deeper; provenance is also a service.
* So the source gets credit.
* So the source may find value in the traffic I send, through ads or relationships or however she likes (if the source is smarter than Rupert Murdoch and realizes there is value in those people to click to come).
* So we then support original journalism. (This is one reason why Google News now looks for citations to find the originator of a story: to give us a better source and give the source better support.)
* So the journalist proves that she added real reporting and real value rather than merely rewriting press releases.
* So the news organization may save money and use journalists for higher valued work (do what you do best and link to the rest).
* So the news organization may save money through collaboration.
* So responsibility is taken. I will trust what I read more if I know who says it; anonymity devalues trust — for the source who hides behind it and for the journalist who takes the easy route through it.

In content, as creation becomes overabundant and as value shifts from creator to curator, it becomes all the more vital to properly cite and link to sources and even to add value to those links, explaining why the click is worth the time and encouraging people to take the trip. Good curation demands good provenance.

But the new importance of provenance affects much more than journalism. It affects any company providing a product. See Rob Walker in today’s New York Times Magazine on our desire — he hopes — to know where our gadgets are made so we do not contribute to poor working conditions in Asian factories. This trend follows the same need in the fashion industry to demonstrate a move away from sweatshops (one of my entrepreneurial journalism students, Jenni Avins, is making a site and a business out of following the source of what you wear at When it comes to products, we want to know:
* where it was made,
* by whom,
* in what conditions,
* using what materials,
* causing what damage,
* traveling what distance,
* with whose assurances of quality,
* with whose assurances of safety.

During the rash of dangerous products coming out of China, we want to know the provenance of everything from dog food to dry wall to know about its safety.

The transparent marketplace made possible by the internet reduces companies’ ability to profit through opaque pricing — we can always find the cheapest. So companies will increasingly need to compete on ethics. That will require that they open up their sources, supply chains, factories, and businesses so we may judge them. Given two equal products — two toilet papers — the provenance of the one — our ability to know where and how it was made — may give it the competitive edge. But we won’t take the company’s word for it — any more than we should take the Washington Post’s. We’ll demand that they show us. Publicness (I’ll argue in my book) becomes an asset.

But provenance can also be a mark of higher value. When we know where the grapes come from, we may pay more for the wine made from them. Jersey tomatoes, everyone knows, are worth more than Florida’s (ya gotta problem with that?).

Provenance is, of course, becoming more important in politics and government. We want to know the source of a politician’s funding and the influences on her. We want to know who created an earmark so we may hold them accountable.

Provenance has always been expected in the academe but now citations empowered by links have even greater value — not merely to give credit but to give students the opportunity to explore and learn on their own.

Finally, in a remix culture, one way to share credit and value is to link back.

This is why editors at the Washington Post and everywhere else must learn that it’s no longer good enough to think that the buck can stop at them, that they can be the validators of trust, that we shouldn’t worry our pretty little heads about where their news comes from. This is why we, the readers, must get better at accepting and valuing the results of more openness and be proficient at judging sources for ourselves. This is why companies must understand that they will be expected to open up their processes.

Provenance is no longer merely the nicety of artists, academics, and wine makers. It is an ethic we expect.

  • Till

    Glenn Greenwald has been doing a great job of criticizing the absurd overuse of anonymity, frequently contradicting the paper’s own policies.

    A recent piece:

    There *are* circumstances where anonymity is crucial. Whistleblowing in particular. For just about anything else, anonymously-sourced “information” should be considered utterly worthless. The analogy to art forgery is apt.

    • I do agree about the value of anonymity in whistle-blowing and free speech. Less so in news.

    • cm

      “For just about anything else, anonymously-sourced “information” should be considered utterly worthless.”

      That’s the whole point of having a brand name. If the Washington Post journalist + editor are prepared to run with an anonymous source then that surely gives some credibility. Crying Wolf erodes the brand value so there is no benefit for them in using anonymous sources unless they are very sure of them.

      Trusting sources relies on an unbroken chain of trust. Just having a name of the final source is not enough. The source may be misquoted or the quote just fabricated or might turn around and deny that they said it.

      Personally I’d believe Washington Post quoting an anonymous source more than some random tweeter saying “Obama said …”.

      Just like art provenance. If Christie’s says an unsigned work is valuable I’ll believe that before a random street corner art seller tells me a signed work is valued.

      Putting “click here to see for yourself” does not prove anything unless the reader can trust that source too. Fabricating a “source” to point your reader to is as easy as anything.

  • Hi Jeff,

    This is a great article, and I completely agree, so thanks for sharing. I hate to be a nit-picker, but I just wanted to check what appears to be a spelling mistake with you, before I share your article on Twitter (which I am about to do!)

    In the paragraph about companies competing over ethics, and the toilet paper example, the last sentence starts with the word Pubicness – is that meant to say Publicness?

    I hope people take notice of what you’ve said, anyway, and understand the importance of giving credit where it’s due, and the impression they make when they don’t.


  • Pingback: True gadget transparency: In the works!()

  • Pingback: Notes from #blogchat – Open Mic Night | Ian M Rountree()

  • Pingback: ‘Test Article’ For “Unique Article Wizard” | Cairns Attractions()

  • Great post – absolutely. In an world of atomized media provenance is critical to trust. I’ve been banging on about this for a while (as, I know, have you). Which is why we developed hNews and why we’re spending lots of time thinking about metadata (and particularly linked data)

  • In a sense, links have become the new footnotes (though providing much more immediate routes to sources). I agree with your points on links and provenance. As a bit of an aside, I’m reading Carr’s The Shallows and was just going over a section discussing linking and the impact studies indicate they have on us cognitively. And that brings up the question: if links have an impact, are they better placed at the end of a piece rather than within the text in order to avoid impeding the flow of reading and understanding?

    Sorry … I don’t mean to sidetrack the provenance question.

    • Andy Freeman

      > And that brings up the question: if links have an impact, are they better placed at the end of a piece rather than within the text in order to avoid impeding the flow of reading and understanding?

      They’re better placed inline. They need not “[impede] the flow of reading” because they can be largely invisible.

      Read up on the A tag. The href attribute is the linked-to location but the text can be anything. In other words, the linked-to location need not be visible.

  • Oops. That was supposed to be an image. Click here to see the latest data from Gallup on press trust.

  • I try not to use news sites that don’t allow comments and use secret sources, because they annoy me to no end. It’s not even that I think NYT or BBC journalists are lying (though I don’t see why it couldn’t happen from time to time), but they could be lied to, manipulated or they could have misunderstood the situation.

  • As I noted in a post this weekend ( ), the Post’s refusal to cite sources was especially egregious in this case, because these were not whistleblowers. The military brass hiding behind the Post were trying to smear a journalist. And character assassination demands the name of the source. Hastings’ alleged violation of an off-the-record understanding was nowhere near as egregious as the cowardice by the Post’s sources or the Post’s promiscuous granting of confidentiality when it wasn’t justified.

  • Pingback: Jessica Chapel / Railbird v2 - Links for 2010-06-29()

  • Clarence Cromwell

    I generally agree with this post, and I think newspapers could do more to show all the evidence backing up their stories.

    But did you just write that mainstream journalists should provide copious proof with their stories, and then follow it up with a post that everybody else can take that work and repeat it without attribution?

    How about holding everyone to the same high standard?

    • Andy Freeman

      > But did you just write that mainstream journalists should provide copious proof with their stories, and then follow it up with a post that everybody else can take that work and repeat it without attribution?

      No, he didn’t.

      Jarvis has never said that people should violate copyright. He wants journalists to be paid for what they write, broadcast, etc.

      However, journalists don’t own facts. And it’s dumb for them to make it harder for other folks to find what they’ve written.

      Note that journalists (for the most part) don’t produce facts, so it would be absurd for them to own facts.

  • Pingback: MediaBlog » De morsige held en het digitaal vertrouwen (V en slot)()

  • Pingback: De morsige held en het digitaal vertrouwen (V en slot) « De nieuwe reporter()

  • Pingback: Selecció Escacc 09/07/10: articles d’interès sobre periodisme, comunicació i cultura | Reflexions sobre periodisme, comunicació i cultura()

  • Pingback: Experts are not always authorities. « Priresdev's Blog()

  • Pingback: MediaShift . How Metadata Can Eliminate the Need for Pay Walls | PBS()

  • Pingback: How Metadata Can Eliminate the Need for Pay Walls | Martin Moore()

  • Pingback: Things that tell you things, and what they tell you: Roundup post()

  • Pingback: Ethics outrage at the Washington Post | The Buttry Diary()