reuters notices wikipedia revisions 07.07.2006, 1:29 PM
posted by ben vershbow
It's interesting to track how the mainstream media covers the big, sprawling story that is Wikipedia.
Here's an odd little article from Reuters on Wednesday, which reports the flurry of revisions that took place on the Ken Lay Wikipedia article immediately following news of his fatal heart attack (suicide? murder? vanishing act?). What's odd about the Reuters piece is its obvious befuddlement at the idea that an article could be evolving in real time, or, more to the point, that a news purveyor would allow unverified information to be posted as the story was unfolding -- to allow an argument over facts to be aired in front of the public. Apparently, this was the first time this reporter had ever bothered to click the "history" tab at the top of an article.
At 10:06 a.m. Wikipedia's entry for Lay said he died "of an apparent suicide."
At 10:08 it said he died at his Aspen home "of an apparent heart attack or suicide."
Within the same minute, it said the cause of death was "yet to be determined."
At 10:09 a.m. it said "no further details have been officially released" about the death.
Two minutes later, it said: "The guilt of ruining so many lives finaly (sic) led him to his suicide."
At 10:12 a.m. this was replaced by: "According to Lay's pastor the cause was a 'massive coronary' heart attack."
By 10:39 a.m. Lay's entry said: "Speculation as to the cause of the heart attack lead many people to believe it was due to the amount of stress put on him by the Enron trial." This statement was later dropped.
By early Wednesday afternoon, the entry said Lay was pronounced dead at Aspen Valley Hospital, citing the Pitkin, Colorado, sheriff's department. It said he apparently died of a massive heart attack, citing KHOU-TV in Houston.
Hard news has traditionally been prized as the antidote to rumor and speculation, but Wikipedia delivers a different sort of news. It's a place where churning through the misinformation, confusion and outright lies is all part of the process of nailing down a controversial, breaking news topic. Thinking perhaps that he/she had a scoop, the Reuters reporter unintentionally captures the surpise and mild discomfort most people tend to feel when grappling for the first time with the full implications of Wikipedia.
K.G. Schneider on July 7, 2006 2:24 PM:
I saw Ben Vershbow eating spumoni! No, it was rocky road! No, it was chocolate-vanilla twist! Oh wait, it was a slice of pizza. No wait, it wasn't Ben at all! Stand by, minute by minute, as this story unfolds! What else do you have to do with your life?
What did we gain from a half-day spent with bad information on Wikipedia? It makes Wikipedia sound not much better than the gab at my local hair salon (apologies to my stylist). Is it more important to get stuff in print as quickly as possible or to get it reasonably correct? Is this our brave new world? And must every observation about Wikipedia's treatment in the press conclude that the reporter is some kind of rube and that Wikipedia is ipso facto a more highly evolved information service?
ben vershbow on July 7, 2006 3:18 PM:
Not more highly evolved, just different. I do perhaps slip into a patronizing register here, but mainly I just wanted to point out how the larger world is beginning to take notice of Wikipedia, and how people -- non-techie, non-wikimaniacs -- are starting to contemplate what makes Wikipedia different from the kinds of information sources upon which they've traditionally relied.
What I think would be a more highly evolved kind of information service, however, is one in which reporters and amateur producers collaborate on the making of news. This is Jeff Jarvis's idea of "networked journalism," which moves beyond the unfortunate divide, implied by the terms "citizens journalism" or "citizens media," between journalists and ordinary people (as though reporters are not also citizens and motivated by a civic consciousness). This closely resembles our idea of networked books, in which authors and readers collaborate on the development of a text.
K.G. Schneider on July 8, 2006 2:21 PM:
I appreciate your distinction between "citizen media" and Jeff Jarvis' approach (how I hate that whole possessive-s problem), because after the tenth time I heard "your readers are smarter than you are," I too felt that was an unnecessary divide. (Not only that, if that were always true, then how did we elect George Bush?)
I see a lot of networked journalism going on, and everyone's better for it.
I guess I was disappointed in your post because you so rarely drink anyone's Kool-Aid, as is evident on your posts about Google. I thought the "odd little article" did a pretty good job of pointing up a nagging problem with Wikipedia not easily dismissed by stock phrases and reference to grand visions. Remember that your typical two-job working-class mom doesn't have the kind of privileged life (if it um, is a privilege) to spend all day "churning" through "news." Whatever she experiences in the very thin slice of time she has for sensemaking beyond her own life is what she'll know. Sometimes I think we should pay attention to what our mothers said, to paraphrase: "If you don't have anything accurate to say, then don't say anything at all."