Journalism and Wikipedia

Journalists often speak of “the record” as a substantial thing, for example, by getting a clear signal from a source that what’s said will be “on the record.”

But what if “the record” is evanescent, is it a “record” in the long-term sense the word implies? Nothing lasts forever, of course, but one would like to think “the record” would last, say, a few generations. Yet most of journalism‘s products, I would bet, do not.

Nearly all of radio is long gone. Same with a lot — maybe most — of television. Even if tapes are kept, what can play them? In my garage I have a box of 2″, 1″, 3/4″ and VHS (1/2″) tapes of TV “content” (as we say today) from decades ago. Except for the VHS tapes, I don’t have a machine that can play any of them, and don’t expect to find one easily, or ever. I also have many hundreds of cassette tapes, plus hundreds of floppies, mini-disks and other containers for which decanting will prove troublesome or impossible. Much of my old data can only be read by old computers with old operating systems, and I only have a few combinations of those, also taking up space in the garage, some of which haven’t felt electric current in two decades or more. And let’s not go into the (yes, literally) dozens of dead hard drives I have in boxes and drawers, with who-knows-what half-buried inside them.

I suppose most of the major newspapers have troubled to archive their data. But it’s customary for the papers to put their old “content” behind a paywall — giving away the news and charging for the olds, as it were. I think that’s a mistake, but I’m a voice in the wilderness on that one. In any case, getting at “the record” at a big paper is often a pain in the ass, typically an expensive one.

And now that the live Web has become normative (all that social stuff, and commercial sites with content that changes by the moment, with the “experience” customized differently for everybody, in real time) the only place the relatively static Web survives is Wikipedia. Is “the record” anywhere more sensible and intact than in Wikipedia? I might be wrong (yes, tell me) but that’s how it looks to me.

Wikipedia is imperfect in countless ways. But at least it works, and its unambiguous purpose is to serve as a record. Every article has a history, and every revision can be found. Searches across the whole of any article’s history (and across other variables) can be done. Again, it’s not perfect, but improving it isn’t out of the question, or in the hands of some .com or .org that might be sold.

So here’s what I’m thinking: Journalism, as a field, should be concerned with adding to the record that is Wikipedia. (Wikipedia clearly cares about journalism.) If you are a reporter or an editor, and you write something of worthy of citation in a Wikipedia article, maybe you should put it in there — or have somebody else do it — as a professional pro formality. Hey, why not?

I also wonder to what degree journalism classes, and schools of journalism, care about Wikipedia. I believe it should be a lot, if it isn’t already. But I don’t know, yet. Though I plan to soon, since I plan to make journalism a preoccupation of mine over the coming year. Details when I’m ready in a month or so.


  1. Seth Finkelstein’s avatar

    Well, you asked if you were wrong, so I’m going to take the bad risk/reward ratio and reply.

    Regarding “Journalism, as a field, should be concerned with adding to the record that is Wikipedia …”


    Wikipedia is The Wrong Answer. It is a cult filled with unhappy people being sold a delusion that they can have status and power by working for free. See my old article:

    Oh, what a tangled web we weave when first we practise to deceive

    Journalism should not care about Wikipedia, except for the danger of using it.

    I could go on (and on), but the Berkman Center has made it very clear it’s going to hype Wikipedia, and I will simply get hurt if opposing the hype.

  2. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Two things, Seth.

    First, there are plenty of people who edit articles in Wikipedia who are not unhappy, cultish or delusional about power and status. They just want to edit articles about a subject in the only place out there where some degree of permanence and relevance on a subject can be found in a search online. I’m one of those, and I have zero truck with Wikipedia as a .organization. Beyond Jimmy Wales, whom I barely know and haven’t seen in years, I don’t know who I’d call if I wanted to join the cult. Which I wouldn’t anyway.

    And why, if Wikipedia is as you describe, should it remain so?

    FWIW, the criticisms I see of articles there (e.g. “This article needs attention from an expert on the subject,” “This article needs additional citations for verification”) tend to be good ones. Are you saying the editors who make these remarks are cult members?

    Second, this post has nothing to do with the Berkman Center.

  3. Seth Finkelstein’s avatar

    Sigh. Consider the following hypothetical exchange:

    A: “Housing is so difficult to find nowadays. Except for Crackhouse Hill, there’s little else low priced. Maybe the solution to the local student housing problem is having more of them move to Crackhouse Hill.”
    B: “Crackhouse Hill is a horrible neighborhood. It’s full of drug-dealers and addicts. People should stay away from it, it’s no place to live.”
    A: “I’ve known people who lived in Crackhouse Hill, and aren’t drug-dealers and addicts. I’ve been to the neighborhood, and I wouldn’t be able to find the alleged narcotics kingpin if I wanted to deal drugs. There’s many people there who are just trying to make the best of limited options.”

    What’s the logical fallacy? It would be taking “X is full of Y”, and which granted is technically an ambiguous statement, but clear in conversational English, and reading it as “Every single member of X, to the slightest extent, is a Y to the maximum possible degree, with no exceptions or qualifications”. Then knocking that down at length.

    That is, “Wikipedia is a cult” does not reasonably mean “Every single person who has made the slightest contribution to Wikipedia turns into a will-robbed zombie who chants “Walesss … Walesss …” in a mindless quest for fresh brains to consume and then excrete as building material for the hive.”

    Thus, to address “And why, if Wikipedia is as you describe, should it remain so?”, the short answer is that its structural incentives favor, repeat “unhappy people being sold a delusion that they can have status and power by working for free.”, as I examined an infamous case in the column I wrote.

    Additionally, it should not be a controversial observation that there’s a politics of Wikipedia hype vs criticism, in which the Berkman Center is a significant (n.b. not “only”, not “monopoly”, not “sole and exclusive”, but *significant*) player. I did not say anything like “This post is following a Berkman Center directive”. But is the case that there’s quite a difference if the wind is at one’s back as opposed to in one’s face.

  4. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Do you think there is room, or need, online, for something with the positive aspirations of Wikipedia? If so, what would you propose?

  5. Mike Loukides’s avatar

    I’d turn the question around. Do I want Wikipedia to be journalism? If so, what kind of journalism? The yellow journalism of Fox News? The “report the controversy, we won’t bother to check the facts” journalism of the New York Times? The “better keep the new boss happy” journalism of the Wall Street Journal? The “write 3 pages about possibly drunk girls getting killed in a car crash with a police cruiser, and ending with one sentence saying that the police cruiser was travelling 90 MPH with its lights off” of the New Haven Register?

    I know how Wikipedia works, and there’s no way to keep journalists off it if they want to show up, but if I could, I would. (I suspect journalists aren’t there for all the wrong reasons, but that’s another story.) Wikipedia is far from perfect, but it has certainly turned out better than I expected back when it started. Journalism is seriously ill, and I don’t think it’s getting better any time soon.

    I know, this really doesn’t address the “public record” issue.

    (Disclaimer: I made a grammatical correction in a wikipedia article once, just to see how it worked.)

  6. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Two thumbs-down so far. None up. Looks like this idea is a dud.

  7. Geoff’s avatar

    As a fellow 47er I support your view.
    With any major ‘news’ incident eg London 7/7 suicide bombing I found Wikipedia an invaluable up to the minute update on the situation. Far better than ANY old school organisation eg BBC.
    I’ve contributed to a few Wikipedia articles especially in my old field of ironmaking.

  8. Seth Finkelstein’s avatar

    Oh, absolutely, there’s plenty of room online for noble goals and good intentions. Ideally, I’d propose expanding the BBC and NPR and having similar sort of projects. However, in the current political climate, I know that’s a nonstarter at best, and a Red-baiting opportunity at worst.

  9. Richard Stacy’s avatar

    Not sure that Wikipedia is necessarily the answer – but the problem you have identified is a serious one. Now that so much of what is shaping history is taking place within digital spaces, we need to find a way of creating or preserving an access to these spaces, or else we risk losing history.

    First flagged this back in 2009 in relation to retaining access to Twitter tags

  10. Steven J Fromm’s avatar

    Very interesting issue. However, what about lost artwork from many generations ago that has now been lost or stolen or destroyed. We lost the “records” there too. We are now gaining the capacity to preserve our history with things like Wikipedia and who knows what may come down the road.
    Really something to think about. Thanks for the post.

  11. Tampa Lawyer’s avatar

    I am still confused what so bad if Wikipedia has become one of the largest sources for providing old records. Regardless of their information, I am not going into the debate of whether that is wrong or right but they should be at least credited for the services being provided. Yes, Journalism must need to remain above all leans. In many of the articles, Wikipedia clearly mentions that “Citation required” or “Verification in Process” and many other notes and that is what appealing to me.

  12. Cincinnati Lawyer’s avatar

    Wikipedia is updated so fast, that sometimes it can be slanted incorrectly before all the facts about a current issue are known.

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