Wikipedia in the news (again): reputation and status

Yesterday I noted this Guardian article, ‘Wikipedia editors may approve all changes’.

Now, as it turns out, that headline is highly inaccurate. It seems that the ‘Flagged Revisions’ system would in fact only apply to a certain subset of Wikipedia articles (biographies of living people) and (I think) to new/unregistered users. The article doesn’t tell you this, and in spite of the fact that this is an article about the internet, it contains no links to further external sources of information that might.

Today, the [sarcasm alert] well-known Web2.0 expert Marcel Berlins has waded into the debate. His piece does at least contain some links to Wikipedia pages, possibly because it’s a CIF (“C*ntishness is Free”) blog post/op-ed, rather than a news article. But still no links to the sources of the story.

Why is it too much to ask for a link to the actual web page where Jimmy Wales and the Wikipedians are discussing this right now*, so we can find out for ourselves what’s going on? If you want that, you don’t search the news sites; your best bet is to head for the blogosphere (eg).

This isn’t just a dig at the Graun; check out the story at other newspaper sites – how many do any better (except from within their blogs, eg here)? The Telegraph doesn’t here; nor does the Times here – and the latter contains the line “In his blog, Mr Wales said the “nonsense” of the false reports would have been “100% prevented by Flagged Revision” and said he wanted the changes to be implemented as soon as possible.” So you can have a direct quote from an online source, but still no link. On top of which, the source isn’t a blog, it’s Jimbo’s user talk page at Wikipedia.

Wikipedia articles, in contrast, generally contain extensive external links and references, not to mention having discussion pages and a full history of revisions just a click away. Wikipedia may be unreliable, but it’s transparently unreliable, and at least it attempts to document its sources (and its creation process).

Newspaper websites continue to get away with far more shoddy practices (I use the word deliberately: frankly, I think there’s no excuse for the absence of links to important sources in online versions of newspaper articles – and even in print versions too – and I’d also like to see wiki-style access to the full history of articles). OK, they’re in the business of news – the ‘rough draft of history’ – not reference.** The genre does make a difference.

But it’s also because of reputation and status, and assumptions about ‘amateurism’ vs ‘professionalism’.

Marcel Berlins (if I must):

The brutal fact is that a work of reference which depends mainly on volunteer amateurs, whose good faith, ability and expertise are unknown, and whose contributions are largely unchecked, cannot be other than unreliable.

Marcel perhaps needs to read some of the research comparing Wikipedia with works of reference by paid professionals. (And, as I noted very recently, the idea that ‘contributions are largely unchecked’ is phooey.) The issue is not ‘reliable’ vs ‘unreliable’ – it’s ‘how unreliable?’, and ‘is it good enough for a given purpose?’ (And of course, ‘how can you tell, if you’re not an expert in the subject?’)

Newspaper journalism, by default, is trusted to get things roughly right, to be good enough – regardless of how often we see mistakes in subjects we know something about, regardless of how many articles are just regurgitated press releases and uncritical plugs for somebody or something (cynics might say that newspapers can’t afford to have a general policy of linking to sources, because if they did, we’d be shocked by just how much of their content is of this type). Wikipedia, by default, isn’t trusted. And it’s still got a long way to go.

* I found this fascinating, but I also find Wikipedia’s ‘proposed deletions’ discussion logs fascinating. So YMMV.

** And no small part of the issue in this particular case is that Wikipedia itself is blurring the line between news and reference.

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4 Responses to Wikipedia in the news (again): reputation and status

  1. Steve says:

    Hello there

    “(cynics might say that newspapers can’t afford to have a general policy of linking to sources, because if they did, we’d be shocked by just how much of their content is of this type)”

    That’s about the size of it.

    I remember when the Guardian (Online? Unlimited? whatever it was called then) launched its blogs and blog forums. I think it was Emily Bell. Her first post was on how to moderate and included a long list of restrictions. Damn those people with their opinions. I never looked again.

    Wikipedia’s like crack/chocolate/repeats of Father Ted innit?

  2. Larry Cebula says:

    “Wikipedia may be unreliable, but it’s transparently unreliable….”

    Just so. We academic historians need to stop whining about Wikipedia and begin engaging the project. Step one is to teach our students how to evaluate a source like Wikipedia and to realistically understand its considerable strengths as well as its weaknesses.

  3. gracchi says:

    Sharon I agree entirely with you about how newspapers aren’t reacting and relating to the net particularly well- ie that they aren’t reacting like blogs do by linking to the place where you found the story when you found it online. I’d say that Wikipedia has different issues- I would be quite interested in who are the Wikipedia editors, what I suspect is that there are particular areas where Wikipedia is really strong (computer programs for example) because those are the sorts of people who are motivated and skilled enough to contribute. I wonder if Wikipedia might reflect its users and possibly therefore it isn’t a good idea to evaluate it in aggregate but break it down into categories and evaluate it by those.

  4. Pingback: Britblog Roundup No 207 - Philobiblon

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