Frank Ahrens of the Washington Post wrote an article this weekend criticizing the wikipedia for its handling of the death of Ken Lay, arguing the same tired trope that has been played out again and again:
Unlike, say, the Encyclopedia Britannica, Wikipedia has no formal peer review for its articles. They may be written by experts or insane crazy people. Or worse, insane crazy people with an agenda. And Internet access.
Ahrens’ complaint would be valid if it only applied to the wikipedia. He was troubled by the fact that the entry for Ken Lay went through a series of incorrect entries, some of them entirely specious, before finally being corrected (with citations) within 4-5 hours. Pretty impressive, for an unregulated community, I say, but Ahrens disagrees, and offers this insight:
But here’s the dread fear with Wikipedia: It combines the global reach and authoritative bearing of an Internet encyclopedia with the worst elements of radicalized bloggers. You step into a blog, you know what you’re getting. But if you search an encyclopedia, it’s fair to expect something else. Actual facts, say. At its worst, Wikipedia is an active deception, a powerful piece of agitprop, not information.
There are a number of problems with this argument, not the least of which is that people do know what they are getting with the wikipedia. It’s apparent that the site is a community generated resource, and that there will often be factual errors. The larger problem with this argument, though, is the unstated alternative that Ahrens seems to be suggesting–that mainstream media accounts of breaking events are factually more accurate.
Think about any breaking news story that you can remember from the past five years. Does the responsible mainstream media wait until the facts are known before reporting, or is the viewer assaulted with an endless cacophony of speculation by reporters in the field and analysts in the studio? Consider the events of 9/11. While admirable in a number of ways, the coverage also repeated factually inaccurate information for hours, about car bombs at the State Department, seven airplanes being hijacked, and attacks at Camp David, for instance. Shouldn’t the responsible media have verified its source before reporting that day?
The differences between the wikipedia and mainstream ‘instant news’ coverage are critical, and instructive. The media is presumed to be skilled at accurately conveying breaking news objectively, while most Internet users understand the nature of collaboratives sites like the wikipedia. What’s more, the very history that Ahrens used to condemn the wikipedia is something the media lacks–can the average viewer go back and see the mistakes and misinformation in a television newscast? Not without access to expensive services like Lexis/Nexis. The wiki’s transparency is not a sign of its untrustworthiness at all, but a sign of its strength.
The mistakes of ‘citizen journalists’ and contributors to the wikipedia are not excused by the failures of the media, but at what point does the media drop its cloak of holier-than-thou objectivity and accuracy?