Wikipedia, Sex Offenders, Dukes and Good Journalism

Another twist to the whole discussion about accuracy on Wikipedia, as well as the news that some individuals obsessively monitor and tweak their biographies on the site: the ABC reports that Student Reporters Expose ‘Royal’ Sex Offender:

Student reporters at a Minnesota high school exposed a prospective transfer who said he was a member of the British royal family as a fraud, a 22-year-old adult, and a registered sex offender.

When a prospective transfer student claimed he was Caspian James Chrichton Stuart IV, fifth Duke of Cleveland, and a member of the British royal family, he sparked the interest of the Stillwater Area High School newspaper staff. But when student reporters began investigating, they discovered the “student’s” picture on a list for registered sex offenders.

Their research involved checking Wikipedia:

The reporters uncovered their first clue when they read the entry for the Duke of Cleveland on Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia that takes submissions from readers. The entry was written by Joshua Gardner, a name that also turned up on the National Sex Offender Public Registry.

The students took what they had dug up to the university administraion, who were doing their own investigations. The man was arrested 18 hours later.

However, as with all these things, the story merits closer scrutiny. A Wikipedia discussion on the page in question points out the ABC News is not entirely correct in saying the Wikipedia piece was written by Gardner. There were edits to the piece done by someone writing anonymously, and these edits were promptly restored. These edits involved inserting the name Joshua A. Gardner as a kind of alias for the real Caspian James Crichton-Stuart IV. These hoaxes were spotted by Wikipedians and removed. It was probably these changes that tipped off the journalist-students to the connection between Gardner and Crichton-Stuart. Which doesn’t reduce their achievement; far from it.

This illustrates how complicated things get for Wikipedia as it grows in stature and as a source for others. If the students hadn’t been so sharp, perhaps Gardner could have gotten away with it. For a while, at least. And while some folk will use this as further ammunition to limit the ‘anarchic peer review system’ that makes Wikipedia what it is, I would say that it comes out of this little episode pretty well. They moved quickly and intelligently to keep the material accurate, and it was only the students’ delving into the edit history that showed up the links. As for coming out of this well, so do the student journalists, Matt Murphy, Karlee Weinmann, Chantal Leonhard and Marisa Riley.

14. January 2006 by jeremy
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