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Wiki Truthiness Part 2 – Weekly #8

April 6, 2010

In our last post, we discussed the merits of Wikipedia vs. traditional encyclopedias. In pitting Wikipedia against a paper encyclopedia, it is important to note that Wikipedia is not trying to be a paper encyclopedia. This distinction is clear nomenclaturally: it is not called Online Encyclopedia;  it is called Wikipedia: a combination of encyclopedia and the Hawaiian word wiki, meaning “quick.”

This second part of the definition, the “Wiki” aspect, has to do with the speed with which information can be aggregated and updated. Paper encyclopedias are not “quick” in the Wikipedia way, but what outlets are speedy in their population and dissemination of data? What is the fastest way to get information that most people think of? I would argue that today, the “quick” informers are our traditional news outlets.

This gives rise to a new face off: Wikipedia vs. Traditional News Outlets.

Comparing Wikipedia’s credibility to traditional news outlets, particularly around breaking news, is an interesting endeavor.

Wikipedia takes part in both episodic journalism and systemic journalism. This is, perhaps, unique to Wikipedia, and one of the things that makes it a truly valuable source for breaking news stories.

  • Episodic journalism gives readers blasts of up to the minute headlines without placing them in a larger framework. These soundbites are very detailed, yet lack contextualization.
  • Systemic journalism, while perhaps leaving out every detail of what Gwyneth Paltrow is eating  for lunch or Obama’s  views on the Final Four, seeks to put information in context and give it a framework and delineate possible impacts.

Wikipedia is able to participate in both of these media because contributors fill out breaking news wikis in a very episodic way – blasting headlines as soon as they arrive. However, because Wikipedia is a highly organized environment, the data soon becomes subject to systemic organization and contextualization as people fill out the details of what an event means and how it links to other events. The internal links in Wiki pages also provide excellent context: if I am reading up on a news story and come across a term or noun (person, place, thing) I am not familiar with, chances are this will be a linked term to a separate Wiki page where I can read up on that subject before proceeding with my initial reading. In this way, I can better understand the article and better understand what is happening in the situation.

However, with traditional news outlets, many times there is no such contextualization or cross-referencing possible. For example, the current health care debate has a lot of jargon and many episodic headlines, as seen here in the Washington Post’s coverage. I could spend an hour on that page and still not really have a good idea understanding of health care reform in this country – I would know random details about people in Colorado, and what date Obama signed something, but I wouldn’t really get a sense of what health care reform is all about and how it works.

On the other hand, if I were to spend that hour on the Wikipedia page about health care reform, I might come away with a more structured, deeper knowledge that would make all those Washington Post headlines all of a sudden make a lot more sense.

While Wikipedia beats episodic journalism, Wikipedia is not the only source of systemic news. One of my favorite news publications is The Economist, which is not daily, but a weekly publication that not only relays news but analysis it in a way that is meaningful to the reader. NPR also seeks to perform this type of contextualization.

You will rarely find me reading a newspaper (The New York Times Sunday Edition gets an exception, but then again, it is so much more than news!), because I find that I learn more from systemic journalism. Also, daily pubs, because of a rush to print, are often poorly written.

Your reading time is valuable. I know I don’t want to spend time reading something riddled with errors or that does not give me the biggest intellectual bang for my buck experience. We get to choose our news sources. And I choose to read from a publication that is both well written and will deliver an excellent analysis of the material: namely, those that practice systemic journalism.

As a news source, Wikipedia is a great resource, especially to gain a deeper understanding of a complex topic. However, we must remember that while Wikipedia organizes the information, they do not procure it. Wikipedia is not a source of original research, reporting or analysis. Because of this, it is best to remember those publications who are doing original reporting and spending time analysing the findings.

Another component of this is the fact that in today’s world, reporting is a dangerous mission. Men and women risk their lives as photographers, video journalists, and print journalists to bring us the news that gets compiled in sources like Wikipedia. The recent release of the unbelievably tragic video documenting the slaying of two Reuter’s reporters reminds us of this too high cost of journalism. While Wikipedia is a great source of organized information, it cannot replace the traditional outlets who are brining that data to be organized. We must continue to support traditional news outlets with our readership and our financial contributions. This is the only way we will be able to continue to receive news from around the world  – or else we fall into the darkness of not knowing, and there is no such thing as blissful ignorance.


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