Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Wikipedia Journalism

I've written before about the problem of what I call "Facebook journalism" and the fact that many newspaper reporters may be putting the print media in even greater jeopardy by relying on Internet surfing rather than talking to their actual subjects in person, so that newspapers become less likely to do investigative reporting than some online sources.

Now Ian Bogost has pointed out an article called "Irish student hoaxes world's media with fake quote," which seems to show how what could be called "Wikipedia journalism" could distort the historical record. After French composer Mauricel Jarre died, twenty-two-year-old Shane Fitzgerald seeded Jarre's Wikipedia entry, with a sappy false quotation that would be tempting for hack obituary writers to cite: "Music was my life, music brought me to life, and music is how I will be remembered long after I leave this life. When I die there will be a final waltz playing in my head that only I can hear." Sure enough, a number of newspapers, including The Guardian, printed the quotation in their coverage of Jarre's death and didn't uncover the true source until Fitzgerald himself announced his deception. This kind of exploit could be even more destabilizing to truth claims the more that recursion comes into play, since a false Wikipedia fact could be cited in a newspaper story, and then the newspaper story could be used to source the so-called fact.

Fitzgerald said he had waited in part to test whether news organizations or the public would smoke out the quote's lack of provenance. He said he was troubled that none did.

And he warned that a truly malicious hoaxer could have evaded Wikipedia's own informal policing by getting a newspaper to pick up a false piece of information -- as happened when his quote made its first of three appearances -- and then use those newspaper reports as a credible footnote for the bogus quote.

In "Wikipedia, Obits and Faking" a writer for the Washington post argues that this tendancy to not list sources is part of the obituary genre's emphasis on fluent narrative:

Colleagues of mine at the obit desk feel too much attribution ruins the flow of the story. At what point to readers want a good uninterrupted tale, and at what point do they need to know where the information is coming from?

Fitzgerald explains in an opinion piece in Irish Times how he hit upon the idea of an improvised research project while faced with "the arduous task of writing yet another essay on social science’s current fad – globalisation."

Ironically, the Wikipedia entry of Jarre's son Jean Michel Jarre is now slated for a radical revision to redres other kinds of sloppiness in the information presented about the junior Jarre's life and work as a composer. Fitzgerald himself has been added to Wikipedia, although the site's editors are apparently already considering deletion of his entry.

Meanwhile Microsoft is trying to challenge Wikipedia's dominance in market share.

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