It appears the immediate community crisis has ended, but there are still aftershocks. The New York Times published an article Monday that gives a good summary of the affair. But most importantly, an official response from The New Yorker is surprisingly inadequate at first glance, given its stellar reputation for fact checking. From the article:
In an e-mail message on Friday, The New Yorkerâ€™s deputy editor, Pamela Maffei McCarthy, said: â€œWe were comfortable with the material we got from Essjay because of Wikipediaâ€™s confirmation of his work and their endorsement of him. In retrospect, we should have let our readers know that we had been unable to corroborate Essjayâ€™s identity beyond what he told us.â€
It is not clear what “Wikipedia’s confirmation” refers to. Since Wikipedia is a community of indvidual editors and not a monolithic top-down organization, it may be referring to looking up information contained in the web site’s pages. But personal information is entirely voluntary, and does not go through the “wiki” method of checking and editing.
Alternatively, this “Wikipedia’s confirmation” may refer to the nonprofit Wikimedia Foundation offices in Florida, but the organization in itself does not have any confirmation of the real identity of its online users, and has been consistent in stressing it only recommended users to talk to. (Full comment below)
In the end, it is the responsibility of the respected magazine to vouch for their story and sources, in this case an individual editor of Wikipedia.
“What he told us”
The ultimate question then: did the New Yorker ever ask Essjay for his real-life name for verification of the facts? Given their vaunted reputation for meticulous fact checking, this is an important question.
- If he did provide a name, did they look up the information? What did they find?
- If he did not provide a name, how could they run with the story with unverified basic facts about a main character, given they were fact checking meticulously about items like the number of “hits per second” to the Web site, the start date of the three revert rule and the male/female percentages in the community?
I’m troubled they put the onus on “Wikipediaâ€™s confirmation of his work and their endorsement of him.” This appears to be a questionable characterization of the fact checking procedure in this case.
Danny Wool of the Wikimedia Foundation, point person handling interactions with the magazine, indicated the nonprofit organization could not have been part of such an “endorsement”:
I suggested several names for interviews, along with the known background stories of these editors and a brief summary of their work. In suggesting Essjay to Stacy [Schiff] as one of these possible interview candidates… I stated that one of the appealing things about his story was the extreme anonymity. I also stated that he had turned down requests for interviews in the past, and that I was not sure he would agree. I was not asked about Essjay at all by the fact checker (name omitted) who contacted me and discussed the other points of the article at length.
So it seems we still have an unresolved issue of what The New Yorker meant by their statement. I look forward to hearing a more detailed explanation.
Note: A request for clarification has been sent to The New Yorker deputy editor Ms. McCarthy. Any followups to this will be posted here.
Full disclosure: Andrew Lih has been an assistant professor of journalism for three years and has worked in the field of journalism for over a decade. He has also been a Wikipedian as User:Fuzheado for four years. He is currently writing a book about Wikipedia.