Tag Archives: Wikipedia

Journalists Citing Wikipedia: Rarely an Option

Reuters has just published its handbook online. A smart move (declaration of interest: I’ve done some training work for Reuters. I’ve got my old dog-eared copy on a shelf nearby.)

I posted (approvingly, but without comment) a retweet from Nieman pointing out that Reuters generally forbids quoting from Wikipedia:

Online information sources which rely on collaborative, voluntary and often anonymous contributions need to be handled with care. Wikipedia, the online “people’s encyclopedia”, can be a good starting point for research, but it should not be used as an attributable source. Do not quote from it or copy from it. The information it contains has not been validated and can change from second to second as contributors add or remove material. Move on to official websites or other sources that are worthy of attribution. Do not link to Wikipedia or similar collaborative encyclopedia sites as a source of background information on any topic. More suitable sites can almost always be found, and indeed are often flagged at the bottom of Wikipedia entries. It is only acceptable to link to an entry on Wikipedia or similar sites when the entry or website itself is the subject of a news story.

This is good policy, but the point could be made more clear. Wikipedia does not encourage the writing of entries that don’t cite existing sources:

Wikipedia does not publish original thought: all material in Wikipedia must be attributable to a reliable, published source.

In other words, if it’s in Wikipedia it should have been somewhere else first, and anyone using the information should go to that original source to check before citing it.

This is true of any journalistic endeavour,  and so it’s no great issue. (“Who told you that?” “What’s your source for that?” “Where did you hear that?”: all questions a journalists asks of someone who tells them something that’s not their own direct experience.)

People should not be offended by Reuters’ polic; indeed, they should be following it already—as writer, as reader, as consumer of Wikipedia.

Confirming is easy enough to do, by the way: just click on the small number that should be next to the information you’re planning to use:


That will take you to the footnote, highlighted in blue:


Then click on the link, if any, in that footnote which should take you back to the source:


If it doesn’t—either because the link no longer works, or the source is an offline one–then you need to do a bit more digging before you’re ready.

Of course, if no footnote exists, then you should be skeptical, or look elsewhere to confirm the information.

Clint, Veganism, and Maligning the Net

Great interview in the International Herald Tribune/NYT with Clint Eastwood, but once again, it’s old media slagging off new media and ending up looking the worse for it.

The interviewer, presumably, asks Clint to confirm that he’s a vegan. Turns out he’s not.  Apparently the writer did his research on Wikipedia, because that’s what he cites as a source:

Despite what you might have read on Wikipedia, Eastwood is not a vegan, and he looked slightly aghast when told exactly what a vegan is. “I never look at the Internet for just that reason,” he said.

Trouble is, the source is not Wikipedia. As anyone who uses Wikipedia knows, any information on there must be sourced. A glance at the actual Wikipedia page would reveal that the source for this ‘fact’ about Clint is, in fact, a fellow old media source, The Los Angeles Times:

People ask him to autograph rifles, but Eastwood is no Charlton Heston. A vegan, he was distressed to hear Hillary Rodham Clinton boast recently about bagging a bird.

This piece was subsequently run in the San Jose Mercury News, the Providence Journal and PressDisplay.

In fact, you won’t be able to see this on the Wikipedia page anymore because it’s been removed. That’s because some new media moves faster than old media: on December 11, the day the NYT piece was first published, a Wikipedian spotted the reference and prompted a discussion, and the removal of the reference on the grounds that a direct denial from Eastwood trumps an LAT piece. (You can see the discussion here.)

In other words, from what we can judge, the journalist involved researched Clint on Wikipedia, and was ready enough to accept that as a source on which to base his questions. When the fact in question turned out to be wrong, he allowed Clint to make a familiar sideswipe at the Internet, and not further research the origin of the myth.

But the story doesn’t stop there. The LA Times doesn’t cite a source. But there are plenty of them—apparently. Clint is quoted on dozens of sites as saying

“I try to stick to a vegan diet—heavy on fruit, vegetables, tofu, and other soy products.”

Sites like GoVeg.com have been happy to include him in their Animal-Friendly Celebrities (although, to their credit, they seem to have removed him. Compare this page with this cached version.)

What’s perhaps most intriguing is the source of this quote. I’ll admit I can’t find it. But it’s been bouncing around the net for a couple of years; this forum cites it in September 2006. I found a  piece in Glasgow’s Daily Record on May 23, 2006 that also listed Clint as vegetarian, although the web site does not seem to contain a record of it. The oldest reference I can find is in the Miami New Times, on October 13 2005, which lists Clint among a number of (supposed) vegans.

In other words, a myth arose on the net, without any straightforward way of establishing its provenance or authenticity, which was then happily picked up by websites, businesses, and organisations whose purpose it served, then found its way into a mainstream news article, before finally being authoritatively quashed.

So yes, in a way Clint and the NYT reporter are right. The Internet isn’t reliable. But Wikipedia is. Or at least, it’s no less reliable than the sources it cites. Which in this case, happened to be old media itself.

Lesson? As a journalist I guess I might too have fallen into the trap of trusting the LA Times. But it’s a timely reminder that there’s no fact too small or apparently established that it can’t stand to be fact-checked.

Just don’t blame the net if you get it wrong. It’s cheap and it’s old wave.

The veteran power of Clint Eastwood – International Herald Tribune

Why Do People Contribute Stuff for Free?

By Jeremy Wagstaff

If you want to see two worlds collide, introduce a Wikipedian to a bunch of journalists.

I’ve been doing this quite a bit recently, partly for fun, and partly because I’ve decided a key part of training journalists to be ready for online media is understanding what they’re up against. “This is your competitor,” I say, introducing them to a slightly pudgy PhD candidate in ancient Greek and Latin, still sweating from his journey and a couple of hours of fencing lessons. “This person works for the single biggest media property on the web.”

Needless to say, they all look askance at the man, and me, and I can see them thinking to themselves, “Well that’s something we don’t have to worry about.” Especially when the guy, called Edward, tells them he does all his work for free and largely, he says, because he’s a pedant.

Of course Wikipedia—that online encyclopedia that now boasts 2.5 million articles in English alone—doesn’t pretend to compete with traditional newspapers or media. It’s an encyclopedia, after all, although it’s updated far more frequently than most encyclopedias, and, dare I say it, many traditional media websites.

But it’s the fact that all this is done for free that gets the journalists in my class all riled up. Edward tells them he spends about 20 minutes a day working on pieces, either adding something to a page on an obscure Chinese bridge, or tidying up someone’s grammar on a page about a kind of Southeast Asian bread. Why? they ask? Why would you spend all this time doing all this?

Well, first off, I can tell he spends way more time on it than 20 minutes. In class you can see him get distracted by an article and then start tweaking it. We’re speaking serious compulsive tendencies here. But the truth is, he does it because he enjoys it. He really is a pedant, in the nicest sense. He can’t stand to see things online that aren’t, in his view, correct. Whether it’s a serious error or a more esoteric one (he’s the first person I’ve met who can talk about ligatures until the tripthongs come home.)

Edward may be unusual, but he, and people like him, are the bedrock of sites like Wikipedia. In fact, while Wikipedia is the seventh most popular website on the planet, only 0.2% of visitors contribute anything, and only a tiny fraction of that do most of the grunt work.

This isn’t just true of Wikipedia. The history of the Internet is about the few creating, the rest doing what is usually called lurking—sitting within earshot but not actually saying anything. The ratio is called the 1% rule, meaning 90 percent lurk, 9% contribute occasionally, and 1% account for most of the contribution.

This is probably true offline as well; anybody who’s tried to get volunteers to help out on committees or at events know all about freeloaders. The web just makes this more obvious—that a lot of people tend to freeload, and a handful of people just seem to keep on giving.

But that’s not exactly true. Everyone is motivated somehow, and the Edwards of this world are motivated too. Studies have been done to show how a Wikipedia environment is very much like an academic one: those who do contribute find themselves in a weird sort of social hierarchy. Some recognise their work—there’s a merit system within Wikipedia where contributors are given barnstars by other grateful contributors. Others complain they get no recognition and that the whole thing is political anyway.

Sound familiar?

For most websites like this, I suspect the story is similar. People get involved because they’re interested, and then they find it’s a community, and then they want to be a useful member of that community, and then they seek recognition in that community, and the rest is history. That’s not to denigrate it; a lot of fine work has been done for worse reasons.

The same is true of open source software, of Amazon book reviews, of comments on obscure ornithology websites about the lesser-spotted rabbit catcher. The Internet is a great leveler, in that anyone with an Internet connection can join in, but then human nature kicks in, and hierarchies form. In this case it tends to be around what you know, and how much you hang around and contribute.

But there’s a bigger point here. Just as each online community depends on these power users, so do they depends on ordinary folk like us. Editing a Wikipedia entry is remarkably easy, and the warm fuzzy feeling you get for correcting even the smallest error is a a heady one. Try it and you’ll see how easy it is to get addicted.

Indeed, websites make it so easy for us to play a role that in a way the model is changing. We can add our voice while doing nothing more tiring than listening to music on our computer. Software will feed our choices of songs to others who may share our tastes and are looking for new artists to listen to. We can easily add websites to social lists of bookmarks with just a mouse click. Increasingly we do this kind of thing with our friends via social networking sites–partly because it’s fun and partly because we like to be useful.

And maybe, in the end, that’s all it comes down to. My Dad used to walk around the village picking up bits of litter—some of them so small my toy microscope wouldn’t have spotted them—just because he wanted to be useful. I suspect Edward, and all those other Wikipedians out there, are doing something similar. Which gives me a warm fuzzy feeling about the future of the Internet. Of course, a couple of barn stars wouldn’t go amiss either.

The Inanities of the Visionary

I have a lot of respect for Doris Lessing but her recent remarks about the Internet reveal an ignorance and lack of understanding that is depressing and unbecoming of such a literary giant. Here’s what she said in her acceptance speech for the Nobel prize for literature:

We never thought to ask how will our lives, our way of thinking, be changed by the internet, which has seduced a whole generation with its inanities so that even quite reasonable people will confess that, once they are hooked, it is hard to cut free, and they may find a whole day has passed in blogging.

Frankly, I’m not sure Ms. Lessing knows what blogging is. And I am also one of those people who are concerned that the Internet is changing our society in ways we haven’t thought through. But it’s certainly not killing reading, learning and writing. In fact the opposite: the Internet is actually offering us so much information, and so much knowledge, the problem now is being able to judge what is important and what is not, and to retain a sense of mystery about the world.

If we can look down from heaven on any point of the globe via Google Earth, if we can look up any fact on Wikipedia, if we can communicate with any person in any country via voice for free via Skype, if we can listen to any radio station on the planet (and watch 100s of different tv channels) or read more or less any newspaper, if we can read tens of thousands of different books for free via Project Gutenberg, not to mention hundreds of thousands of excellent blogs, I can’t really see what is “inane” about the Internet.

Ms. Lessing is concerned that amidst all this online inanity, books will die. Of course books won’t die. Books as books (pbooks) won’t die. They come in a form that has proved perfect for their content. They will also be available as ebooks, too, and in forms we can’t yet imagine or create.

The point is that writing will continue. Online it may be shorter — but not always — and it may be interspersed with other media. But I would say that there are more people reading and writing now than any time in history. As Ms. Lessing herself says, according to The Guardian’s Maev Kennedy:

She contrasted her experiences in Zimbabwe and other parts of Africa, where people were hungry and clamouring for books even though they might have no food, where schools might not have a single book and a library might be a plank seat under a tree.

In a way the Internet is the solution to this kind of problem; in some ways it’s easier to bring knowledge to people and institutions via the Internet than by bringing them books. Or, failing that, bringing them the single biggest repository of free, community-based knowledge in the world: Wikipedia — printed out, or put on a CD-Rom and given via a refurbished $100 PC. I don’t think that the One Laptop Per Child idea is necessarily the correct way to go about it, but I do believe on the whole the Internet has brought people in the developing world closer to knowledge than any physical library ever has.

I’m sad that Ms. Lessing, who has been considered a social radical and has written some great science fiction, has not seen the Internet for what it is: a great leveller, redistributor and repository of information and knowledge.

( PS I just looked up dorislessing.com and dorislessing.co.uk: the first is up for auction (and sports a picture of a young woman in white with a white laptop in a white chair; definitely not Doris Lessing) and the second redirects to a radio and TV tuning website where you can tune in to dozens of radio and TV stations. Meanwhile anyone online wanting to know about her can find it on Wikipedia. It all seems somehow fitting.)

Nobel prize winner Lessing warns against ‘inane’ internet | Special Reports | Guardian Unlimited Books

Wikipedia: Important enough to whitewash

This is an edited version of my weekly column for Loose Wire Service, a service providing print publications with technology writing designed for the general reader. Email me if you’re interested in learning more.

Wikipedia has gone through some interesting times, good and bad, but I think the last couple of weeks has proved just how powerful it is.

Powerful enough for those who feel denigrated by it to have been trying to spin, airbrush and generally rewrite how history — or at least Wikipedia — remembers them.

Take WikiScanner, cooked up by a young student, Virgil Griffith. WikiScanner does something very simple: It searches the Internet addresses of an organization — government, private, company or whatever — and matches them with any anonymous edit of a Wikipedia entry.

This means that while the edits themselves may be anonymous, the organization where the person is based is not. We may not know who did it, in other words, but we’ve got a pretty good idea of whom they work for.

The results have been surprising. Users of WikiScanner have come up with dozens of cases of companies, organizations and government departments apparently changing entries to either delete stuff they may not like, or making the text more palatable.

Some examples of apparent — none of these is confirmed but the Internet addresses match — self-interested alterations that have hit the news in the last few weeks:

* Diebold removes sections critical of the company’s electronic voting machines

* Apple and Microsoft trade negative comments about each other

* Amnesty International removes negative comments about itself, according to the Malta Star

(My own searches threw up no examples at all of institutions in my current home of Indonesia spinning on Wikipedia. Shame on them. What have they been doing with their time? One Indonesian embassy official seems to have spent most of his day editing an entry on rude finger gestures, but that’s about it. Clearly these people are not working hard enough for their country.)

The point about all this: Wikipedia is often derided as irrelevant and unworthy. Clearly, though, it’s important enough for these people, either officially or unofficially, on their own initiative or at the behest of higher-ups, to rewrite stuff to make themselves or their employer look better.

You might conclude from this that Wikipedia is not reliable as a result. I would argue the opposite: These edits have nearly all been undone by alert Wikipedians, usually very quickly.

(Wikipedia automatically stores all previous versions of a page and keeps a record of all the edits, and the Internet address from where they originate.)

The truth is that Wikipedia has come of age. Wikipedia is now important enough for ExxonMobil, The Church of Scientology, the U.S. Defense Department and the Australian government to spend time and effort trying to get their version of events across. If it was so irrelevant or unreliable, why would these people bother?

Of course, coming of age isn’t always a good thing. A recent conference on Wikipedia in Taiwan highlighted how Wikipedia is no longer an anarchic, free-for-all, but has somehow miraculously produced a golden egg.

It is now a bureaucracy, run by the kind of people who like to post “Don’t … ” notices on pantry walls. I’m not saying this is necessarily a bad thing. We all hate such people until our sandwich goes missing. Then we turn to them — or turn into them.

WikiScanner reveals that it’s probably good that such people take an interest in Wikipedia, because it’s clear that the site is under threat from people who would censor history and whitewash the truth to suit them.

Thanks to Virgil and the Wikipedians, that’s not going to happen anytime soon.

The Jakarta Post – The Journal of Indonesia Today

Enough Mainstream Silliness, Please: The Social Web Works

I’m a big fan of mainstream media — course I am, I work for them — but I’m also a big fan of the other stuff. Like Wikipedia. It’s usually the first place I start if I’m trying to familiarize myself with a new subject, even a new one.

Which is why I get uppity when mainstream media disses Wikipedia with the kind of broad-brush strokes it usually accuses the online world of making. Like this one from The Boston Globe, in a story (not a column) about social finance sites:

The wisdom of the crowd may be a fine way to discover the most amusing YouTube video, but Wikipedia has been vilified for inaccuracies, and the online world hardly has a reputation as a trustworthy source.

In one short sentence the writer manages to dismiss

  • YouTube as a mere site for “amusing” videos,
  • the “wisdom of the crowd” as a mere mechanism for finding stuff,
  • Wikipedia as apparently the mere butt of vilifiers, and
  • the online world as, basically, untrustworthy.

Sources? Examples? A measure of balance? Er, none.

Now I like the Globe, and I love the IHT, where I read this, so I’m guessing this might just have been a bit of sloppy editing or last-minute “background” so enamored of editors. But frankly I can find very little vilifying of Wikipedia, at least if one counterbalances the criticism with the praise  — and the sheer numbers: nearly 2 million articles in English, in the top 10 websites. (The best source, by the way, for criticism of Wikipedia is, er, Wikipedia; the piece has 125 external references.)

So, come on, mainstream journalists. The time is past for sniffy, unsubstantiated asides about things like Wikipedia. The social web has already established itself and proved itself. It ain’t perfect, but neither are we.

Sharing the wealth – The Boston Globe

The Wrong Guy Goes to Hollywood

The ‘Wrong Guy’ story just keeps going. The Congo-Brazzaville man who was interviewed on the BBC mistakenly as a computer pundit back in May could have his own movie, according to the BBC:

The incident involving Guy Goma is the basis for a film being planned by Alison Rosenzweig, who produced the 2002 Nicolas Cage film Windtalkers. “If they want to do a movie, I don’t mind talking with them,” Mr Goma, 38, told the Associated Press news agency. .. “He’s a fun, kind of internationally famous person that I think is an interesting source for movie material,” Ms Rosenzweig said. “We’re developing the project, and hopefully we’ll be able to set it up on a major studio.” She added that the amount of money Mr Goma could make would depend on the financing of the project.

Lovely stuff, although I’m not sure the one incident may suffice for a movie. Anyway, he’s big enough to have his own Wikipedia entry, his own web-page, and lots of half-baked news stories that turn out not to be true. No one loves a celeb more than the Brits.

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Wikipedia Goes to Washington

All this stuff about people obsessively airbrushing their Wikipedia biographies is getting out of hand. In December we heard that even Jimmy Wales himself, the guy who has done more than anyone else to make Wikipedia what it is now, was not above tweaking the entry on himself. My conclusion then was that

Of course, Wales is not alone in monitoring his biography, and I’m sure if I had one, I would monitor it obsessively too. But when does ensuring that you’re not being accused of masterminding the assassination of presidents become Stalinesque airbrushing of history? And the logical result of this is that every biography on Wikipedia becomes an autobiography, which may keep the subjects happy, but may mark the end of Wikipedia as a useful tool.

Clearly I spoke way too soon. The Washington Post is following up an earlier story (reg req) about a congressman’s profile being altered by his intern with Wikipedia’s Help From the Hill which seems to suggest everyone on Capitol Hill is doing it:

The scope of the scandal keeps growing, and now that an investigation has been launched, a growing list of Capitol Hill members and their staff appear to be involved. No, this isn’t about fallout from the shenanigans of former lobbyist Jack Abramoff. This concerns Wikipedia — the online encyclopedia written and edited by anyone who wants to contribute — and the suspected perpetrators of untruths about certain lawmakers.

A good piece, and an example of how things can get even more absurd than any of us might imagine. Where does it stop? Is any entry on anyone, living or dead, untampered with? Why were these tweaks not spotted (Obvious answer: no one cares about these politicians and their tawdry little histories)? What does this say about Wikipedia as an objective resource?

I think we should rest easy. Wikipedia will institute safeguards and everyone will take with a pinch of salt political biographies of the living — and perhaps a few other folk — on that website. But it does give us pause for thought. Would, if Wikipedia wasn’t a huge success, these folk have bothered getting their underlings to remove less palatable aspects of their past from its pages? The bottom line for me is that Wikipedia seems to have arrived. It’s being taken seriously enough by the powers-that-be for them to try to manipulate it to their advantage. That’s one in the eye for those who consider it a nerdy irrelevance.

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.