word on journalism
Monday, October 8, 2007
Columbus . . .
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."
Vonnegut (1922-2007), author, from Breakfast
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,
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
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.