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Wikipedia and Ken Lay: Not a Real Story

When former Enron CEO Ken Lay died last week, it took no longer than a few hours for Reuters to put out this Wikipedia hit piece, basically saying that Wikipedia “prompt[ed] confusion” regarding Lay’s death. Then yesterday, the Washington Post’s Frank Ahrens put out this un-remarkable and basically repurposed (from the Reuters story) article recapping Wikipedia and Ken Lay’s death.

It’s beyond obvious that Reuters and Ahrens are afraid of the impact that a source such as Wikipedia would have on their livelihoods as journalists. These guys do not understand that Wikipedia is NOT a source for news. It is a source of user-generated (and yes, sometimes biased) content. Anyone who considers Wikipedia a source of news (let alone breaking news) isn’t grounded in reality.

The mainstream media’s infatuation with Wikipedia as a news source astounds me. Wikipedia is not 100 percent reliable. In fact, the site even says that “newer articles may still contain significant misinformation, unencyclopedic content, or vandalism.” (The Reuters article points this out, while Ahrens conveniently leaves it out.)

But why does Reuters feel the need to have a play-by-play of updates on the Ken Lay article, and have it published just hours after Lay’s death? Perhaps a feature-length article on the editing and updating of a Wikipedia story would be interesting — but days after the fact, when quotes from Wikipedia execs could be obtained.

Ahrens hit-piece is even worse than the Reuters article, though. The worst offender is this paragraph:

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.

“Radicalized bloggers” is a ridiculous, overzealous way to describe what Wikipedia calls vandals (a much more grounded-in-reality word). What Ahrens is trying to say about the factual accuracy of blogs is that they are often filled with rumors — understandable. But what he falsely assumes is that the Internet is the only source of rumors in the world — obviously not the truth. (I’m reminded of 9/11, when I followed the news of the attacks on TV and posted what I heard on this thread at Sitepoint Forums. Car bombs, government planes, Palestinian groups claiming responsibility, etc. — all rumors, all from real news sources.)

Here’s the point: both Reuters and Frank Ahrens miss the mark here. Would it be interesting to see the evolution of a Wikipedia entry on a breaking-news type story a week or so after it happened? Probably. Is it necessary to get a play-by-play version of the updates hours after the story happened turned into a hit-piece on the encyclopedia (and completely misunderstanding the site’s purpose)? Not at all.

Wikipedia is not “citizen journalism.” It is a “citizen reference” site, not a news site. But these mainstream media sources don’t understand that, and fear that their high-and-mighty platforms might be compromised by these Wikipedia users. But they won’t be, unless they write encyclopedias in their spare time.

Reuters and Frank Ahrens, forget that you ever heard of Wikipedia. Obviously you don’t know what it is, and people tend to fear things they don’t understand.

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  1. Well, shit. I wish I’d seen this before I wrote almost the same thing. =P

  2. Hah — it’s all good Wikiblog. Just glad to see I’m not the only one who was po’ed by this.

  3. mac

    I love it when MSM gets its undies in a bunch over a tool/technology it doesn’t fully understand.

    Wikipedia is not an evil reference tool set loose upon an unsuspecting (and, presumably, stupid) populace. It’s a collaborative reference tool that should be used as an introductory source, not an end-all, be-all, encyclopedia. Moreover, no one at Wikipedia has ever made the claim that it’s the biggest, badest, most correct reference source in the world.

    I often think that new technologies need to be explained in simple, cross-reference terms. For example, would a journalist understand Wikipedia if it was described as “a public first draft”?

    Maybe. Maybe not. But they should take a step back and learn a thing or two before mouthing off.

    Right. That’ll happen. — Mac

  4. A B

    Wikinews is the “citizen journalism” site you’re thinking of.

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