Why Wikipedia Should Be Trusted As A Breaking News Source

Most any journalism professor, upon mention of Wikipedia, will immediately launch into a rant about how the massively collaborative online encyclopedia can’t be trusted. It can, you see, be edited and altered by absolutely anyone at any moment.

But how much less trustworthy is the site for breaking news than the plethora of blogs and other online news sources?

Even Moka Pantages, the communications officer for the WikiMedia Foundation, said she agreed with this sentiment when she spoke this morning at the South By South West festival in Austin, at a panel entitled “Process Journalism: Getting It First, While Getting It Right“. Here’s the thing – we have to say that everything she said before answering this question seems to say otherwise.

Update: We got a chance to sit and chat with Moka Pantages today and she took a moment to clarify that she was specifically referring to students using and quoting Wikipedia in research papers. We apologize for any misrepresentation of her stance. Here is her clarification:

I absolutely believe Wikipedia is a good, trustworthy source for contextual news and information and should be used by everyone, including students, as a resource. When I was asked during the panel whether or not Wikipedia should be accepted as a source for college papers, it was my opinion that, just like any other encyclopedia, I don’t think it should be cited as a reference source. However, I do think it’s a great starting point for students to start their research and begin to understand the topic or issue they are writing about.

Tackling Real-Time Content

The panel featured journalists from the

New York Times

,

SeattlePI.com

,

Journerdism.com

and

Gizmodo

and a common theme was that user-created content – whether tweets, YouTube videos, or otherwise – could and should be used in breaking news coverage. The panelists all agreed that this content should be verified in some way and should be presented to the audience with a high degree of transparency.

Each panelist spoke about a specific case study – the New York Times’ coverage of last summer’s protests in Iran, for example – and discussed how they gathered crowd-sourced information and attempted to verify its authenticity. Robert Mackey, the reporter for the New York Times, gave examples of translating chants heard in YouTube videos and matching up street signs that flashed on screen with Google Maps. Once he was sure of its validity, he said, he would add it to the coverage.

“When you’re sitting in an office in New York and you’re trying to confirm that something was shot in Tehran that day was actually shot in Tehran that day, you’re not going to be able to verify that,” he said. “The idea is that it’s a conversation on the web about this event.”

The Newsroom Moves Online

Monica Guzman, a reporter for SeattlePI.com, spoke similarly about her website’s breaking coverage of a shooting and the subsequent day-long man hunt. SeattlePI, formerly a print publication, has existed solely online for nearly a year now. Most of the breaking information that day, she said, came from Twitter.

“The media collaborated with itself and it was one big swirling newsroom on Twitter,” said Guzman. “We ended up using tweets as starting points. And Twitter did end up breaking a bunch of stuff.”

While SeattlePI was able to send reporters out and verify some of the information in person, how was the rest of it verified? “Common sense,” she answered.

The Seattle Times, she said, had more than 500 people collaborating on Google Wave to gather information on the same story.

Wikipedia Takes On The Mumbai Terror Attacks

Then came Pantages’ turn to discuss how

the Wikipedia community addressed the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai

. While it is said, as we started out with, that Wikipedia just shouldn’t be trusted, the case we heard for its coverage of a breaking news situation far surpassed what you might often see on your average blog or even traditional newspaper.

One particular user, Kensplanets, was a driving force behind the coverage, using breaking news from IBN.com as a source. In cases such as this one, the crowdsourcing aspect not only allows multiple points of view, but also allows aggregation from multiple points in a number of different languages and locations.

“It’s not just U.S.-centric information,” Pantages explained, “You have the New York Times, Reuters, Times of India – they’re all there.”

According to Pantages, by the end of the first day of the Wikipedia article’s life, it had been edited more than 360 times, by 70 different editors referring to 28 separate sources from news outlets around the web. While this could seem like a situation rife for misdirection and misinformation, the constant discussion swirling around the creation of an article, Pantages explained, is “really similar to what you would think should be in a newsroom.” Nonetheless, we still disparage Wikipedia as an untrusted source of news.

Wikipedia As News Aggregator

Just like other news aggregation services, Wikipedia takes many sources and puts them in to a central location, but with the added benefit of human curation instead of algorithmic collection.

“There’s no real-time reporting going on in Wikipedia, it’s real-time aggregation,” Pantages said.

So the very first level of information vetting, which happens at the reporting level, has already taken place by the time it reaches the site. Then the hundreds or thousands of editors continue to scrutinize the information, discussing edits and potential changes in the back channels. The news we read in our daily newspapers, on the other hand, is curated by only a small number of people. Surely, there is the question of qualification, but many of Wikipedia’s contributors and editors are, themselves, professionals.

In contrast, we often accept news from other blogs as immediately trustworthy, while a Wikipedia article such as this one, which is transparent in its creation, its sourcing and its transmutation over time, we dismiss as flawed from conception. Today, the 2008 Mumbai Attacks article sits at more nearly 43,000 words with over 150 different sources cited and 1,245 unique editors.

While Pantages argues that “Wikipedia should not be a source, it should be a starting off point,” we would have to argue the same for news media in general. In this crowd-sourced news environment we’ve entered, blindly consuming news and content, from any source, is an ill-advised path to follow.

With that said, if we are willing to take crowd-sourced content – whether tweets, Facebook updates, blogs, videos or whatever else – as valid sources for information about our world, then a collection of these same media as carefully poured over and curated as found in a Wikipedia article should be even more trusted, not less, than those bits on their own.

Traditional media get bits of breaking news wrong all the time, but we accept that as part of the game. To vilify Wikipedia for the same errors sets unequal standards and besides, you’ll likely never see the same level of transparency in traditional media about where it went wrong. With Wikipedia, it’s all laid bare for the world to see.

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