Wikipedia for Journalists

I am one of those writers who seem to spend more time on the lede (anecdotal or otherwise) than the rest of an article. Until I am pleased with my lede, I can’t get to the meat of the piece. I worry, I obsess, I rewrite. Once I am happy with a lede, I don’t change it, mostly because I have so little time to finish up the article.


But here I am, changing the lede on this column. I was almost done with this Web Tip about Wikipedia.org, a free Internet encyclopedia, when I got an e-mail alert about a new message with the subject line “Wikipedia.” At first, I thought it was my editor, Julie Moos, asking about the whereabouts of my column. But then I realized it couldn’t be her since she didn’t know what my topic was … yet.


So I went into my inbox to read this message from Columbia Journalism student Ryan Blitstein.


Hi, Sree,

Have you checked out Wikipedia yet?  I don’t trust it for everything, but it’s incredibly helpful for really basic info on ideas/inventions/biographies.

Talk about coincidence. Not only did Ryan write to me when he had no idea I was working on this topic, but he also neatly summed up my thoughts on Wikipedia: It’s not perfect, but there’s lots of useful stuff there.


I was always wary of trusting Wikipedia, a giant, free, collaborative encyclopedia that’s getting lots of attention. But, slowly, I found myself impressed by some of the entries I came across. What really convinced me to pay attention was a note from my friend and former Columbia colleague Andrew Lih, who now teaches at the University of Hong Kong. He’s been using Wikipedia as part of his journalistic work and his teaching.


Andrew and I taught the advanced new media classes at Columbia for several years, so I trust him on all things technological. Since he is one of the world’s top experts on new media, if he was praising Wikipedia, it had to be good.


So I asked him to write something I could share with Web Tips readers. He whipped up something in a few hours and it’s reproduced below.

You can see and post reactions to his article or to Wikipedia itself on this Poynter feedback page.

Andrew Lih’s Thoughts on Wikipedia
Andrew Lih is director of technology at the Journalism and Media Studies Centre at the University of Hong Kong.


Over the last decade, the Web has become such an essential tool for journalists, we can hardly imagine working without it. While information can be found quickly and easily using tools such as Google, the problem is often not a lack of content, but rather the volumes of stale and questionable content. Determining the accuracy and sourcing of search results is a challenge for any journalist, oftentimes negating the time saved by using the Internet. However, the advent of participatory journalism has provided a unique solution to this problem — it engages the news audience to participate in the process of rationalizing Web content, crafting the news, and contributing knowledge into the “media ecology.” Weblogs by journalists such as Dan Gillmor, Joshua Marshall, and Andrew Sullivan are examples of this, by calling on audience feedback and contributions to help put stories in context. However, also emerging are wiki websites, where any user can immediately directly edit any page with one click of the mouse. It is wiki technology that has produced the largest form of participatory journalism to date — Wikipedia.


Open content


Wikipedia is an Internet-based, volunteer-contributed encyclopedia that in just three years has become a popular and highly regarded reference. It has thousands of international contributors and is the largest example of an open content wiki. (The Hawaiian word for “quick,” WikiWiki, is the basis for the wiki name.) The goal of Wikipedia was to create an encyclopedia that could be shared and copied freely while encouraging people to change and improve the content. Each and every article has an “Edit this page” button, allowing anyone, even anonymous passersby, to add or delete any content on the page. What would surely seem to create chaos has actually produced surprisingly credible content which has been evaluated and revised by the thousands of visitors to the site.


The project was started by Jimmy Wales, head of Internet startup Bomis.com, after his original concept of a strictly controlled, Ph.D-edited free encyclopedia ran out of money and resources after two years and only a few hundred articles. Not wanting the content to stagnate, he put them on a wiki website in January 2001, and invited visitors to edit or add to the collection. It became a runaway success. In the first year it gained a loyal following, generating over 20,000 articles and spawning over a dozen language translations. After two years, it had 100,000 articles. Just this February, at the three year mark, it exceeded 200,000 articles in English and 500,000 articles in 50 languages. Every day, there are nearly 2,000 articles added across all the various languages. 


Keeping it social and neutral


What could possibly allow this completely open editing system to work? Because they provide the ability to track the status of articles, review individual changes, and discuss issues, wikis function as social software, acting to facilitate communication and collaboration with other users. A wiki also tracks and stores every version ever edited, so no operation is ever permanently destructive. With regard to malicious contributors, in a wiki it takes much more effort to vandalize a page than to revert an article back to an acceptable version. While it may take five or 10 seconds to deface one article, it can be quickly undone by others with just one click of a button. This crucial asymmetry tips the balance in favor of productive and cooperative members of the wiki community, allowing quality content to emerge.


However, technology is not enough on its own. Wales created an editorial policy of maintaining a neutral point of view (NPOV) as the guiding principle. “NPOV is an absolute non-negotiable requirement of everything that we do,” he says. According to Wikipedia’s guidelines, “The neutral point of view attempts to present ideas and facts in such a fashion that both supporters and opponents can agree.” Inspired by this policy, the grassroots project has confronted the same great issues facing modern newsrooms — sticking to the facts, attributing sources, maintaining balance, and applying rules uniformly, such as when to use the word “terrorist,” or evaluating what constitutes a cult or a religion.


So far, the effort has created numerous reference-quality articles as wide ranging as the Hutton Inquiry, algorithms, social history of the piano, origins of the American Civil War, and severe acute respiratory syndrome. As its quality has improved, news publications have increasingly cited Wikipedia on subjects such as Wahhabism, crony capitalism, folk metal, British “honours” system, Abdul Qadeer Khan and extinct animals. It has even been used in litigation, when in July 2003, a Wikipedia article on profanity was cited in a motion to dismiss a case in a Colorado court.


Teaching


Wikipedia has also served a valuable teaching tool at the University of Hong Kong’s Journalism and Media Studies Centre. We have used it in undergraduate and graduate journalism classes to teach the skill of writing dispassionately for an international audience. By collaborating online with others, students not only interact with each other when writing, but get advice and corrections from complete strangers around the world within minutes of making contributions to the Wikipedia.


Future


Wikis are just starting to receive recognition for generating credible collaborative content. Perhaps the toughest part of Wikipedia’s future is how to manage its own success. While Wikipedia has recorded impressive accomplishments in three years, its articles have a mixed degree of quality because they are, by design, always in flux, and always editable. That reason alone makes people wary of its content. But first time visitors are typically impressed with what the community has developed, considering the decentralized nature of the effort and the usefulness of its content.


Wales envisions someday a “1.0″ version of Wikipedia — a tangible product in printed form or CD-ROM, serving as a reference work for those not connected to the Internet. But this vision is still far from reality, as there is still contentious debate on how to do something that is unnatural for a wiki — freeze its content. Until then, thousands of contributors will keep plugging away, like a massive cyber ant colony, working on the largest encyclopedia in the world.


YOUR TURN: Send your thoughts — and useful sites – to poynter@sree.net.

Sree’s Links:
SAJA’s 10th Anniversary Convention and Job Fair is June 17-20, 2004 at Columbia University in NYC & the SAJA Journalism Awards entry deadline is April 2.




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