News organizations routinely cover the legislative process -- especially about the real or potential effects of bills and laws. In most cases the full text of those bills and laws, and information about their status, areI have plenty to say about this type of thinking and actions in the real world. First off, the linking would be nice. Most of all, the linking needs to happen in the online editions, more so than in the print editions. So, I endorse the concepts of the above article.
Why, then, is it so rare to see an online news story that links to the bill or law being covered? Or that at least cites the reference number so people can look up and follow the legislation on their own? Why do most news organizations consistently cite the party and state/district of legislators, but omit brief citations and links to the products of their efforts on our behalf?
For example, today's Washington Post includes this story: House Passes Bill Ending Ban On Offshore Oil and Gas Drilling (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/06/29/AR2006062
902078.html). Nowhere does that story cite the specific bill number, let alone link to the bill text and info via the Library of Congress' Thomas (http://thomas.loc.gov/) online database. (For the record, the bill discussed in that story is H.R. 4761 (http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/bdquery/z?d109:H.R.4761:) . There -- see how easy and brief that was?)
Similarly, an AP story
(http://www.philly.com/mld/philly/news/14934229.htm) which ran today on Philly.com reports on the Penn. General Assembly: "School districts would have to conduct exit interviews with students who are dropping out or withdrawing from school, or who have accumulated more than 10 unexcused absences, under a bill passed by the House 164-28 and sent to the Senate." Which bill? Hey, statehouse legislative info is online too! I found this bill: HB 1729
Here's why this common oversight bugs me so much.
The reason we report on the legislative process is to empower citizens to more easily follow what their government is doing. That makes it easier for citizens to get involved in the legislative process (something I discussed in my blog The Right Conversation (http://www.rightconversation.com/2006/06/writing_to_cong.html)
In legislative circles, having correct reference numbers goes a long way toward helping you find the right people to deal with and knowing where to get involved in the process. This makes civic involvement more effective, efficient, and rewarding. Little links and citations in news stories can help make all that happen.
...And yes, I realize legislative documents are long and ugly. So what? If key portions of the text are buried way down in the document, link to the document and then also provide a separate window or page giving the relevant text, with section citations. That content isn't protected by copyright, after all.
This is an easy -- and important -- problem to fix. Looking up legislation online and crafting a link from the reference number shouldn't be considered a burdensome task or a luxury. I think these days it's essential for legislative coverage, especially in mainstream publications. And empowering your audience always enhances loyalty.
Maybe use the upcoming Independence Day holiday to launch a new policy of linking to legislation. You might be surprised how much your community will appreciate this service.
Secondly, linking isn't the only step needed to get to the promised land of citizen engagement. This is why I've crafted and toyed with the wiki framework at Platform.For-Pgh.org. A value added service, such as this local wiki, can go a long way to helping with clarity of thought for community-wide issues. But, this isn't an easy slam dunk proposition. Plenty of heavy lifting is involved. And, the journalists are a big part of the key, but so too are editors, management and most of all, citizen participants with specific issues and points of view to flog.
Thirdly, copyright, copyleft, public domain, deep-links, and many other "turf battles" can mount rather quickly in these efforts.
Books for sale on the streets in China -- where the freedom of the press needs to operate out of a container for the sake of mobility.
Furthermore, (4th) it would not be hard for the new state-house whip to wiggle the legislative agenda's digital dust by putting in aa new folder organization on a web site in Harrisburg. That might make hundreds, if not thousands of links go dead. That would suck for editors at newspapers.
Finally, I've been noodling on these issues for a few years now and I'm just steps away from releasing my more formal presentations to various players in our media spaces in the region -- and even some nationally. If you'd like to learn more, come on over to our 4th of July party and we'll chat.
I'm about to dive in -- and you could witness these spalshes.