I wrote this on March 26th, 2007 as part of my blog for Media Technology and Cultural Change.
Well, the Wikipedia debate continues to be an unnecessarily hot topic. NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams aired a story about the controversy in citing Wikipedia as a credible source. After learning all about Wikipedia and becoming an author on the site myself, I found Lisa Daniel’s report horribly misguided. Here are some of my complaints
First of all, Daniels only included one student, my friend on the basketball team who I can say is probably one of the last people you should be interviewing on national news. I would say on the whole, most students at Middlebury know Wikipedia is not a reliable source. Yet Daniels only includes the interview which fits her story topic perfectly. She makes it seem like most students think Wikipedia is a credible source. This of course is not the case. Yes, it would have made her job a lot harder to include interviews with students who knew not to cite Wikipedia, but that’s what good journalism is all about.
Furthermore, the story emphasizes that Wikipedia can be easily edited by anybody. Yes, that’s true. But there is no acknowledgment of the Wikipedians, the army of people who aim to make Wikipedia as accurate as possible.
And Daniels does not even touch on the benefits to collective knowledge and reaching a larger audience. Instead, she highlights that any mumbo-jumbo idiot can write anything. To demonstrate this, she edits her own Wikipedia site to say “Lisa Daniels is a rock star.” When I checked the history of this site however, I found that Daniels’ vandalism was corrected in one minute. One minute. Why Daniels did not include that information I don’t know. But one person made an interesting point in the discussion page:
“I think Lisa Daniels learned a lot about the value of wikipedia. First, she started as a vandal, making an erroneous claim about herself. Then, she found out that within one minute, her vandalism was remedied. (I wish they would have shown that footage) Then, about 10-15 minutes later, she helped make Wikipedia better by improving her own entry (making herself and her career sound more substantial in the process).” –(IP address)
Isn’t the point of journalism to learn about a topic and present that information to the world? Why wouldn’t Daniels discuss what she learned rather than report exactly what she was assigned? There could be no better argument for the use of Assignment Zero. Daniels was one reporter with one job to do. She probably did not have time to interview people from Middlebury’s media department who might have a different view on how Wikipedia should be used. Granted, this is a two minute story, not a special assignment, so it is her job is to give an overview. But the problem with an overview is that people who know nothing about Wikipedia have no idea about its benefits. Had this story been on Assignment Zero, people could have reported about the pros and cons to Wikipedia and offer a more objective overview. They then could discuss it and share their own opinions. Collective knowledge at its best — instead of just one news team, many people covering the issue. So I ask you, which is more inaccurate: a news report that fails to cover both sides of a story or an online encyclopedia which anyone can edit?
Perhaps I am so riled up about the story because it made me realize: if a news report is this one-sided in a “debate” about Wikipedia, how seriously can I take anything it says about actual, more important news?
You can see the report as it aired:
To be fair, Lisa Daniels’ MSNBC article on Wikipedia does a much more balanced job of presenting the story. While I’ll admit the article was much better than the TV report, I am still critical of the news story simply because I think more people will have seen the television version.