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Today's word on journalism

Monday, October 8, 2007

Celebrating Columbus . . .

"1492. As children we were taught to memorize this year with pride and joy as the year people began living full and imaginative lives on the continent of North America. Actually, people had been living full and imaginative lives on the continent of North America for hundreds of years before that. 1492 was simply the year sea pirates began to rob, cheat, and kill them."

-- Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007), author, from Breakfast of Champions

(NOTE: Strictly speaking, this Vonnegut quote doesn't have anything to do with journalism. I'll owe you one. On the other hand, Columbus didn't have anything to do with discovering America, either, strictly speaking.)


Wikipedia makes for a nightmare in online journalism ethics

By Barry Kort

Wikipedia is classified as a "tertiary source" for the purposes of finding information to support a student's investigative report on a subject. That is, a student cannot cite a Wikipedia article as a source for information in a student paper.

Last week, I learned firsthand why the content of Wikipedia articles are considered unreliable. Elsewhere, I wrote an essay on my experience trying to correct an erroneous article in Wikipedia. It was a dispiriting nightmare.

The editors on Wikipedia are anonymous and largely untrained in journalism. The concept of ethics in journalism isn't even on their radar screen. One of them told me that truth is not even an objective of Wikipedia. Rather the criterion is whether a piece of (mis)information came from a "reliable source."

And therein lies the problem. The New York Times, for example, runs stories on lots of controversial subjects. The Times will quote the views of partisans, typically providing counterbalancing views to help the reader understand how to assess the claims of competing factions in a controversy.

But it's easy to mistake a report in the Times delineating the claims of a partisan from an affirmation that the claim is valid or factually correct. And mistakes like that evidently abound in Wikipedia, since the main criterion is whether there is a reliable source which published the claim. In other words, if the New York Times reports a quote from Bush, that would justify (in the minds of some Wikipedians) that what Bush is quoted as saying is an independently verified fact.

Wikipedia is a rule-driven system, so participating in Wikipedia is a lot like playing chess. Every move can be challenged if the challenger can cite a rule that the move violates. That makes every participant both a player and a self-appointed referee. As a result, some Wikipedians become very adept at gaming the system. They don't participate with an ethic of crafting accurate articles in a responsible manner, but with the personal goal of winning the match. Of course the outcome of any rule-driven game is arbitrary. It just depends on which player is better at citing the rules. When this practice is combined with the tendency to cherry-pick which reported claims found in the legitimate press to elevate to the unwarranted status of facthood, one finds a miasma of half-truths, misinformation, unwarranted inferences, and political spin-doctoring masquerading as verified fact.

Most of the time, this isn't a big issue. But it matters when false and defamatory material finds its way into the Wikipedia biography of a living person. Wikipedia is supposed to have extra filters in place when inserting content into a biographical article. But my experience reveals that the chess game just turns into a frustrating stalemate, with no reliable method for resolving the case and getting to the ground truth. Wikipedia is not designed to get to the ground truth, especially since there is also a rule forbidding original research. Not surprisingly, there isn't much source material on a lot of living persons. If one's name is mentioned in a New York Times article, and some Wikipedia editor misinterprets the article, there isn't much hope for fixing it. Once a bureaucracy makes a mistake, it generally cannot be fixed. And Wikipedia is a rigidly rule-driven bureaucracy without sufficient responsible supervision to ensure that the chess games produces anything of lasting value to the general public (such as accurate stories that one can rely on).

No wonder teachers don't allow their students to cite Wikipedia as a reliable source.

But Wikipedia does provide an interesting example of a good idea gone awry.

And it provides a good example of how a rule-driven system becomes profoundly dysfunctional.


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