Why the reporting on Wikipedia is so bad

So Jimmy Wales has a piece on the Huffington Post about the bad reporting of flagged revs. Frankly, of all the things I would ping traditional media on, confused reporting of a complex new editing approval system is one the last things — I have yet to see anyone in the community explain clearly and concisely the system under consideration, so I think it is asking rather a lot that outsiders should grok it when we are struggling with it.

Of particular interest was

I believe that the underlying facts about the Wikipedia phenomenon — that the general public is actually intelligent, interested in sharing knowledge, interested in getting the facts straight — are so shocking to most old media people that it is literally impossible for them to report on Wikipedia without following a storyline that goes something like this: “Yeah, this was a crazy thing that worked for awhile, but eventually they will see the light and realize that top-down control is the only thing that works.”

Hmm. So it’s that the Wikipedia story is all sunshine and light, and they’re all cynical hacks? I think more likely, is the fact that they simply don’t understand how Wikipedia works.

In musing about Software Freedom Day, I watched a video of a talk by Bill Thompson in which he talked about the “‘10 cultures’ problem” (see Wikipedia for reference, or just watch the video – he gives a detailed explanation), by which he means the divide between those who understand how technology works, and how to work it (in theory, if not practice), and those who do not. (Yes, the title is a binary joke. Did you get it? Then you’re on this side of the divide.)

The fact that we can still see stories published about some article on Wikipedia being wrong, says to me that those stories are written by people who simply don’t understand how Wikipedia works. That is not to defend Wikipedia containing wrong information at any given time. But it is to say, the focus is not in the interesting, important parts. As Bill Thompson puts it, in a debate about national ID cards, it’s like focusing the argument on the physical card itself, rather than the national identity register.

I would like to see reporting on wrongful Wikipedia blocks – cf. reporting on when people are wrongly barred from voting. And no I’m not saying Wikipedia is a democracy, or should be one. But when the promise is engaging and empowering people around the world to develop the sum of all knowledge, and when the impact is what it is (top 5 website), then yes, it is right to have the scrutiny of traditional media all over it.

I mean, it is all there for them to find, too. But they don’t know how, is my guess.

22 September, 2009 • ,



The press getting it wrong once is one thing. The press getting the same thing wrong over and over without anyone bothering to contact someone at WMF to verify or reading some of the many reactions pointing out errors in earlier iterations of the story or even going to Wikipedia and checking to see whether the massive change you are reporting has in fact gone live like your story says it has (I’m looking at you, TIME)…that’s not an issue of things being too complex or muddled to understand, that’s just sloppy journalism.

But yeah, I agree, it’d be nice if at least a few journalists were keen enough to dig into some of the deeper stories about how Wikipedia works and fails to work.

Sage Ross · 22. September 2009, 23:35


Yeah, fair call.

pfctdayelise · 23. September 2009, 10:20

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