Obscure Box

Thoughts from inside the obscure box

January 28, 2009

Screws tighten further on Wikipedia freedom

Posted by : Michael Lund
Filed under : Media

News comes today from the ABC (last night on the ABC's PM program actually) that Wikipedia is looking at restrictions on who can edit biographies.

This from a website that still markets itself as "the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit".

The problem, according to "Vandals prompt Wikipedia to ponder editing changes" (Wednesday 28 January 2009), is that entries on two US senators - Ted Kennedy and Robert Byrd - were edited to say they had died.

Both are in fact alive and well.

Wikipedia says both erroneous entries were fixed within minutes, and admits its policy on allowing anyone to edit means it is more easily vandalised or susceptible to unchecked information.

So Wikipedia is now looking a changes that would mean some edits from new and anonymous uses to be vetted by trusted users before being approved.

Wikipedia already imposes some restrictions on changes to certain entries, and can impose new restrictions if it feels a certain entry is being targeted by vandals.

How long before only trusted users can edit entries?

Whatever changes it imposes though the senator incident only adds to my argument that Wikipedia should never be used as a primary source by journalists.

By all means us it as a starting point, but nothing should be taken as fact unless it can be verified by independent sources. Reliable independent sources.

Journalists have been caught out before by relying on Wikipedia, and they will continue to be caught out so long as sloppy journalists rely on Wikipedia.

Several cases are highlighted by CNN in "Use with caution: The perils of Wikipedia" (Updated 6 January 2009 from original article in 2007).

... those seeking proof of just how much emphasis even professional journalists can place on Wikipedia need look no further than the example of Ronnie Hazlehurst, a British composer of TV theme tunes for shows including "Yes, Minister" and "Last of the Summer Wine," who died this (2007) October.

According to several high-profile obituaries, including the BBC, Reuters, the London Times and The Guardian, Hazlehurst, at the age of 72, also penned "Reach," a 2000 hit for UK pop combo S Club 7. The unfortunate writers had omitted to double-check his Wikipedia discography, and collectively fell victim to Wiki-hoaxers.

The article goes on to quote one of my favourite writers, Douglas R Hofstadter, author of many works including the inspirational Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid.

Hofstadter was interviewed in 2007 by the New York Times and was asked in "The Mind Reader" about his Wikipedia entry.

Your entry in Wikipedia says that your work has inspired many students to begin careers in computing and artificial intelligence. I have no interest in computers. The entry is filled with inaccuracies, and it kind of depresses me.

So fix it. The next day someone will fix it back.


Journalists are supposed to pride themselves on checking the facts, and anyone who fails to do that is letting the side down.

So if you find any more evidence of journalists repeating errors in Wikipedia then please let me know.

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All thoughts and comments here are the honestly held personal opinion of Michael Lund and are based on the information available at the time of publication.