A Royall Juggle

Weekly #8: Wikipedia walks the line of journalism

Posted on: November 10, 2010

In class last week we discussed Wikipedia as a news source and examined the 2005 London Bombings as an example of just how timely the site is when breaking news is unraveling. So while I took some of the tutorials in preparation for our Wikipedia assignment this week, I was somewhat surprised to see “journalism” under the list of what Wikipedia is NOT. Here’s what Wikipedia says about journalism under the “Wikipedia is not a publisher of original thought” header:

“Journalism. Wikipedia should not offer first-hand news reports on breaking stories. Wikipedia is not a primary source. However, our sister projects Wikisource and Wikinews do exactly that, and are intended to be primary sources. Wikipedia does have many encyclopedia articles on topics of historical significance that are currently in the news, and can be updated with recently verified information.”

Wikipedia may not WANT to be a place for breaking stories, but its contributors certainly do “Walk the Line” of journalism. If you examine the lyrics of Johnny Cash’s infamous song from the perspective of the Wikipedia community, it certainly could be a love song to the Wikipedia site. After all, Wikipedia is created, owned and operated by a community of volunteers – many whom are extremely passionate and dedicated to the collaboration project.

“I keep a close watch on this heart of mine. I keep my eyes wide open all the time. I keep the ends out for the tie that binds. Because you’re mine, I walk the line.” – Johnny Cash

Verifiability is another core principle of Wikipedia which in many ways relates to Wikipedia’s “no original research” principle. Wikipedia guidelines request that contributors always cite reliable sources that support material clearly and directly. In the example of the 2005 London Bombings, the original creator of the article posted the first version just 20 minutes after the first bombs exploded. The original article includes one external link a BBC article which must have been published or expanded after the Wikipedia post since it includes quotes from observers. This first version and many of the edits to follow are examples of episodic media – short and quick updates that tell you every development without providing a larger context. Other examples of episodic media include: Twitter, CNN’s homepage and I guess you could consider Facebook status updates episodic “news” as well.

The interesting thing about Wikipedia is that for current news articles, it’s a evolution from episodic to systematic media – longer comprehensive text that paints the big picture such as books and magazines articles. Many Wikipedia articles originate through episodic updates and “end up” as some of the most comprehensive articles about a topic you can find anywhere in the world. Some additional examples of this episodic to systematic evolution include 2010 articles on the cargo plane bomb plot, the BP Oil Spill, and the blizzard we all endured last February. Each of these articles began as a couple of sentences that were proven to be somewhat inaccurate, but developed into a relatively accurate and comprehensive account of a historical event – content that is extremely valuable to someone who is interested in learning more about a topic. You can view the evolution of each article by clicking the “view history” tab and navigating from the earliest to the most recent version. Although I may turn to traditional news media such as CNN for episodic updates on breaking news, I think I’ll check out Wikipedia next time to see which media outlet publishes the news first — I have an inclination that it will be a tight race.

The Wikipedia community definitely walks the line with many of the Wikipedia core policies including journalism, but keep in mind that “Wikipedia does not have firm rules” is also one of the company’s five pillars. I think this evaluation of Wikipedia as a news source validates some points in my previous Wikipedia post about how timeliness and convenience can outweigh the importance of 100% accuracy that published encyclopedias and traditional news media strive to reach.


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