July 3, 2018

Americans are more overwhelmed than ever by the news landscape, but one researcher hopes a small step will help readers evaluate sources: creating Wikipedia pages for 1,000 local news organizations.

When readers search for a publication on Google, an “info box” populated by Wikipedia pops up on the right side of the search results with basic information like the publication’s founding date, circulation size and editor.

But that’s not the case for thousands of smaller local papers that don’t have a Wikipedia page. Mike Caulfield, director of blended and networked learning at Washington State University Vancouver, plans to work with students around the U.S. to create pages and info boxes for the local newspapers lacking them.

Making this fundamental information more visible will help readers verify the legitimacy of news organizations, Caulfield said, or find out if a paper has a partisan “axe to grind.”

As part of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities’ Digital Polarization Initiative, a project to combat misinformation and polarization with digital literacy, he also hopes it will teach students digital literacy and the cultural significance of local newspapers.

“When you say ‘the media’ as this sort of noun, it’s very easy to see this as something distant, run by shady people with their own agendas,” Caulfield said. “When you go through newspapers and their history, figure out how many staffers are in a local newsroom, it kind of deconstructs that noun ‘the media’ into something that’s more composed of people who, for the most part, are trying to do the right thing.”

Other projects encouraging students to edit Wikipedia articles have faced challenges with notability, or whether an article topic warrants its own page. But most local newspapers have a significant enough history to be deemed notable, Caulfield said, so articles aren’t likely to be deleted.

He plans to find college students around the country through a partnership with AASCU, but is open to working with high school students, too. Caulfield and his team are putting together materials and resources for student editors, but most of the hands-on training will come from faculty partners.

If journalists are interested in participating, Wikipedia’s conflict of interest policy prevents them from creating pages for their own newspapers, but they can edit pages for noncompetitors, Caulfield said.

Wikipedia can be vulnerable to vandalism, however — the volume of edits (about 10 per second) make the platform easy to abuse and hard to monitor.

“So many solutions to the misinformation problem are coming from various providers, platforms, coders, that rely on Wikipedia as a piece of how they’re doing it,” Caulfield said. “But we’re not necessarily bolstering Wikipedia and preparing it for the inevitable onslaught of bad actors. The only way to do that is to build an infrastructure.”

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