Wikipedia’s Ken Lay problem?

Several folks have emailed me, asking whether Wikipedia is in fact “reeling” and “confused” regarding its page about Ken Lay. That’s because of one sensational Reuters story in major news outlets:

Ken Lay’s death prompts confusion on Wikipedia
Wed Jul 5, 3:40 PM ETNEW YORK (Reuters) – The death of former Enron Corp. chief Ken Lay on Wednesday underscored the challenges facing online encyclopedia Wikipedia (http://www.wikipedia.org/), which as the news was breaking offered a variety of causes for his death.

CNN went even further, rather irresponsibly, with the headline:

Lay’s death sends Wikipedia reeling

Well, Wikipedia is hardly reeling. In fact, in the panoply of edit crises, this barely registers on the Richter scale. It follows quite routinely with the editing dynamic regarding breaking news items. Consider the list of edit versions from the Reuters article.

Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia that anyone can edit, added news of Lay’s death to his online biography shortly after news outlets began reporting it at around 10 a.m. ET (2.p.m GMT).

At 10:06 a.m. Wikipedia’s entry for Lay said he died “of an apparent suicide.”
At 10:08 it said he died at his Aspen home “of an apparent heart attack or suicide.”
Within the same minute, it said the cause of death was “yet to be determined.”
At 10:09 a.m. it said “no further details have been officially released” about the death.
Two minutes later, it said: “The guilt of ruining so many lives finaly (sic) led him to his suicide.”
At 10:12 a.m. this was replaced by: “According to Lay’s pastor the cause was a ‘massive coronary’ heart attack.”
By 10:39 a.m. Lay’s entry said: “Speculation as to the cause of the heart attack lead many people to believe it was due to the amount of stress put on him by the Enron trial.” This statement was later dropped.

To folks who’ve never edited Wikipedia, this is a fairly typical progression – rumor and hearsay first; substantiation and cross-checking, second; verification and codification, third. It’s not unlike bits and pieces of a story you hear shouted atop the cubicles in a newsroom as a deadline ticks closer and closer. (In journalism, this process is referred to as the “sausage factory tour” – you’d be quite appalled seeing how news is made in person.)

It just so happens that in Wikipedia, dialogue and drafts among Internet collaborators happen in article-space, making it quite jarring to see these changes in the open. It’s sausage made before your very eyes. But because it is an encyclopedia, and not a newswire or news service, the articles should be assessed on accuracy given a scope of hours, days and weeks; not seconds and minutes. Wikipedia strives to be more current than Britannica, but it doesn’t aim to be an AP newswire.

Now, there are legitimate reasons to debate the gray area, as to what is “draft” and what is “finished.” There are potential problems for those who might access the article while in flux. This is a question that has been debated for years within the community. But this hardly fits the headline of a Wikipedia in crisis.

The Ken Lay article is semi-protected for now — new users and anonymous users cannot edit the page until further notice. This is a special noise-reduction mode for articles with temporary flare-ups or persistent vandalism (like the pages for George W. Bush or Homosexual).

Wikipedia’s editing dynamic merits scrutiny, but the story doesn’t fit the headline. It’s a good example of the perils of “parachute journalism,” when an outside party does not take the time to understand the norms of the community, whether it is in meatspace or cyberspace.

3 thoughts on “Wikipedia’s Ken Lay problem?

  1. Or “seagull journalism” (compare “seagull management”). I emailed Reuters thanking them for the article, because it would help more people understand how things actually work on Wikipedia and therefore help the public get better value from it. And gave them my phone number if they’re short of a press contact in a hurry.

  2. Pingback: Andrew Lih » Blog Archive » Washington Post Wikipedia analysis

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