August 13, 2005

Lack of editorial oversight in the mainstream media

Newspapers and wire services are certainly welcome additions to the world's information economy, but these media, valuable as they are, can never be fully accepted as sources of information until they put into place some reasonable standards of editorial oversight and some workable mechanisms for detecting and correcting errors.

Um, that's a joke, sort of, but its conclusion is all too true. A lovely example was recently documented by Steve Outing at Poynteronline (and others too numerous to mention -- I got it via Peter Suber).

It seems that on Monday, Reuters ran a story claiming that

Wikipedia, the Web encyclopaedia written and edited by Internet users from all over the world, plans to impose stricter editorial rules to prevent vandalism of its content, founder Jimmy Wales was quoted as saying Friday.

In an interview with German daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung, Wales, who launched Wikipedia with partner Larry Sanger in 2001, said it needed to find a balance between protecting information from abuse and providing open access to improve entries. ...

Restricting access to entries particularly susceptible to unwanted attention could be one way of preventing [abuse], he said.
Wales has been at a meeting of those behind the successful free encyclopaedia in Frankfurt, which lasts until Monday.
He said that setting up a form of "commission" might be one way of deciding which entries could be "frozen" in perpetuity.

But apparently Wales said no such thing:

"The interesting thing is that the media simply made up the story about us permanently locking some pages. It's just not true. ... There is absolutely no truth at all to the story. None, zero. It is a complete and total fabrication from start to finish."

How did this canard get started? According to Outing,

Wales says the problem appears to be in the translation. He was in Germany recently and was interviewed by dozens of reporters, including from the Sueddeutsche Zeitung. He thinks the SZ reporter may have misinterpreted his comments. Then Reuters apparently translated his comments in German back to English, and his meaning got turned into something he didn't say.

What did he really say? According to Wales' explanation on slashdot,

"I spoke to one journalist about our longstanding discussions of how to create a 'stable version' or 'Wikipedia 1.0.' This would not involve substantial changes to how we do our usual work, but rather a new process for identifying our best work."

So, sloppy quoting at SZ, sloppy reporting and no quote checking at Reuters -- no biggie, this could happen even to a blogger. In fact, it did, because many bloggers credulously picked up the Reuters story. The real problem is lack of any interest at all in corrections, according to Wales (as quoted by Outing):

"The story seems to have legs, even though we've contacted Reuters and every other outlet to try to get a correction, no one seems to care at all. ... No response. We're important enough to write about, but not important enough for them to listen to at all."

As Peter Suber writes:

It's obvious but I'll say it anyway. An error like this would not have lasted 10 minutes on Wikipedia.

I just checked Google News, and found 564 hits for Wikipedia. I checked the first 20, and found about a dozen versions of the Reuters story, but no corrections. On Technorati, out of the first ten hits for "Wikipeida Reuters", three were corrections roughly equivalent in content to the listing above. On Blogdigger, five of the first ten set the record straight.

Posted by Mark Liberman at August 13, 2005 11:18 AM