Wikis in the Newsroom

Mark Glaser wonders if “journalists trust Wikipedia, and can collaboration software such as wikis improve newsgathering?”

Consider the Wikipedia, a free online encyclopedia with hundreds of thousands of entries created by thousands of people since just January 2001. Originally, it was supposed to be a trusted encyclopedia called Nupedia written only by people with PhD’s. Wikipedia was an adjunct project that eventually became the main event, a sprawling public site that covers everything from Bayesian probability to cultural imperialism — with versions in dozens of languages.

For journalists enthralled by Wikipedia, there’s still one drawback: lack of accountability. The Boston Globe’s Hiawatha Bray recently spelled out the problem in a story on Wikipedia. “Old-school reference books hire expert scholars to write their articles, and employ skilled editors to check and double-check their work,” Bray wrote. “Wikipedia’s articles are written by anyone who fancies himself an expert.”

Proponents of Wikipedia take less of a black-and-white view, noting that most of its content is reliable but your mileage may vary. Jimmy Wales, founder of the Wikipedia and director of the Wikimedia Foundation (the non-profit that runs the site), told me that the “average level of content is quite high, but our open editing process means that people need to be judicious and sensible.”

In other words, a journalist might be able to trust some or even most of the content on Wikipedia, but double-checking information is a must.

Elizabeth Lawley, assistant professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology’s Department of Information Technology, believes in the collective power of wikis, but is not sure that the removal of distinct personalities will work in a journalistic setting.

“I believe it matters who said what, and when,” Lawley wrote on Corante’s Many 2 Many blog. “That context provides enormous ‘metadata’ for me personally. And the wiki explicitly strips that. I understand why, and I do recognize its benefits. But I’m still uncomfortable with it.”

More likely, wikis will be accepted into the newsroom if they are for private collaboration among staffers. But even in this case, journalists might well be frustrated if they have to search through a revision history to find out just who changed their words of perceived wisdom.

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Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.