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August 11, 2008

How Not To Report on Wikipedia

In the August 4 issue of the New Yorker, Ben McGrath tells the story of Alan Rogers, a talented and thoughtful Army lifer who died in Iraq. McGrath's article explores whether the military and media intentionally covered up Rogers's identity as "the first known gay casualty of the Iraq war," and it makes for fascinating reading. But I was underwhelmed by several lively paragraphs in the middle where McGrath describes the "edit war" over Rogers's Wikipedia entry—a war fought over the inclusion of phrases like "he was gay and worked to end 'Don't Ask Don't Tell.' " I'll admit that this conflict forms an arresting journalistic image, but in choosing to focus on it, McGrath follows an easy, misleading path in the coverage of Wikipedia.

Rogers

Wikipedia's controversial photo of Major Rogers holding hands with another man.

When reporters first started covering the editable online encyclopedia, they tended to focus on the potential for vandalism within the site. Indeed, Eve Fairbanks's essay in the New Republic, on the Wikipedia entries of presidential candidates, still mentions this. ("An editor replaced a photo of Hillary on her Wikipedia page with a picture of a walrus.") Like most journalists these days, though, Fairbanks quickly moves beyond the scandal of mere vandalism (which can be quickly corrected by a user) to focus on the back-and-forth edits between rival factions. ("…whether to describe Clinton as 'a leading candidate for the Democratic nomination' or just 'a candidate.' ")

Of course, focusing on any momentary interpretation ignores the mutable nature of Wikipedia entries. If you visit Hillary's entry now, you won't find anyone arguing whether Clinton is "a leading candidate" or "a candidate"—as they did in April, when Fairbanks turned in her report. Because Wikipedia can instantly evolve and self-edit, Hillary is—for now—merely a "former candidate." Similarly, the entry for Rogers now calls him "the first known gay combat fatality of Operation Iraqi Freedom," and includes a lengthy discussion of the debate about whether obituaries should have outed him.

This ability to adapt—to add, say, a new entry when someone like Alan Rogers becomes newsworthy—is a big part of Wikipedia's value. And twisting this merit into a behind-the-scenes spat is simply a new and irrelevant way to undermine Wikipedia—utilizing it not for its content, but for its conflict.

You'd think institutions like the New Yorker and the New Republic would remain above this kind of sensationalism, but these elite media organs seem more interested in the editing process behind Wikipedia's entries than just about anyone else. Perhaps this is related to the creation of the WikiScanner, which traces anonymous edits back to their sources (and at least tells us something about the would-be authors, if not the final product). Or maybe it has something to do with the New Yorker's previous embarrassing run-in with Wikipedia in the 2006 "Essjay controversy."

Whatever the cause, tracking these debates serves roughly the same purpose as using color quotes (which, as Gelf has shown, are pretty useless and take up space that could be used for actual reporting). By focusing on the controversy, reporters are willfully ignoring the ends in order to wallow in the means.







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