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Reading between the lines

It is always remarkable how much things have changed over the years. Take something like Wikipedia -- a concept that nobody really conceived of even a few years ago. Of course, Wikipedia is the online wiki encyclopedia, which allows people to contribute their own knowledge to items. With that comes some risk, such as the much publicized case of somebody who posted that a person had died even though they had not. Well, apparently the poster has come forward.

Here is the item from Good Morning Silicon Valley:

Bogus Wikipedia entry traced to grassy knoll [GMSM, 12.12.2005]
Much as its creators hate to believe it, Wikipedia isn't immune from "the tragedy of the commons." Individual interests, it seems, always outweigh the common good, even in the utopian world of collaborative encyclopedias. So it really comes as no surprise to find Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia written and edited by volunteers, waist-deep in controversy today after a Nashville man admitted he inserted scandalously false information into a Wikipedia entry about a prominent journalist. On Friday, Brian Chase, a manager at a small delivery service in Nashville, apologized to John Seigenthaler, a top adviser and close friend to Robert Kennedy, for suggesting he had been involved in the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy. In a letter to Seigenthaler, Chase said he thought that Wikipedia was "some sort of 'gag' encyclopedia" and that he had penned the assassination tale as a joke. "I didn't think twice about just leaving it there because I didn't think anyone would ever take it seriously for more than a few seconds," he wrote. Of course a lot of folks did take it seriously. And today, Wikipedia is facing renewed criticism from those who've long argued that it cannot be trusted as a credible source of information. In response to the controversy, Wikipedia is enacting some reforms, such as requiring people to register before adding an article, but such measures do little to address the danger inherent in a open-source encyclopedia. "If you look at the Encyclopedia Britannica, you can be fairly sure that somebody writing an article is an acknowledged expert in that field, and you can take his or her words as being at least a scholarly point of view," Michael Gorman, president of the American Library Association and dean of library services at Cal State Fresno, told The San Francisco Chronicle. "The problem with an online encyclopedia created by anybody is that you have no idea whether you are reading an established person in the field or somebody with an ax to grind. For all I know, Wikipedia may contain articles of great scholarly value. The question is, how do you choose between those and the other kind?"

Times have changes for how we as journalists gather news, but the times have also changed for readers. There are so many sources of information out there today -- it is almost overwhelming. I have some family friends who live just outside of Boston and I remember having something of a debate with her about the media these days. She would argue, 'Why don't people just report the truth.' Unfortunately in so many cases, truth is in the eye of the beholder. I know it sounds quaint, but it really isn't our job to report the truth, per say. Despite the connotations of the phrase, we report and you decide. And it requires a more active process by readers.

Perhaps a journalist shouldn't say this, but just becomes something ends up in print doesn't necessarily mean that it is true. I hope that isn't shocking to anybody. The truth is much broader than just facts, after all. We quote people who may be incorrect... or may be presenting information for some ulterior motive. (This is why we try to avoid using unnamed sources as often as possible so readers can assess how believable a source is for themselves.)

Our goal is to always be fair -- to present the various sides of an issue so people can make informed decisions. The theory is that the truth lies somewhere among those various opinions.

Posted by Christopher Dorobek on Dec 12, 2005 at 12:15 PM


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