Photo: Flickr user lifeontheedge

Sunday, June 18, 2006

The ripple effect from yesterday's incorrect and misleading New York Times headline is creating problems for at least a least one high-profile Wikipedian thousands of miles away:

--Previously: One, Two--

From the mailing list:

What is even more embarassing is that these stories spread all over the world. Journalists call locals (such as me) to say

"did you read the last NYT article ? Can you tell me more about the latest decisions ?"

Me : "there are no new decisions"

Journalist : "but it is written in the NYT !"

Me : "so what ?"

Journalist : "Ah...well... still, it is no longer open to everyone - I would like to explain to french readers that new articles can not be created by Anonymous any more"

Me : "well, I recommand you do not, because on the french speaking wikipedia, Anonymous can still create articles"

Journalist : "but Jimmy Wales said that..."

Me : "Okay. But things are not so simple. Maybe I could explain to you how decision making is done in the different language versions and maybe introduce you to our governance system. This is a fascinating topic you know ?"

Which reminds me... did we get press coverage for the hiring of the CEO ?

Aside from Wikipedia being open or not being open to editing, I think hiring a CEO should be food for thought and speculation from at least some of the magazines. Did any magazine question whether it would change the governance of the organisation ? Did anyone wonder if it would somehow impact the international dimension (such as would it impact latin america or india engagement ? would it impact the china block?). Could it change our relationship with service providers or potential partners ? Did someone wonder if that would change something in terms of staff ? What would be the related main benefits and threats ?

No ?

(The poster is a francophone; I've corrected some grammar.)

The more I think about it, the more I think this is what happened:

1. Someone at the Times saw Nick Carr's trolly "Wikipedia is Dead!" post about semiprotection, and the huge response it got, and thought "hey, time for an article about Wikipedia".

2. Someone else at the Times* volunteered to interview people and write a story.

3. The editors said, "Let's clarify this", and "Let's find the lead", several times, until what had been a complex issue was effectively reduced to "Wikipedia's no longer open becuase articles are protected". (You might even call the mistake ... an inherent flaw in collaborative content creation.)

And there was another big problem, which I didn't catch. The Times said:

It has a clear power structure that gives volunteer administrators the authority to exercise editorial control, delete unsuitable articles and protect those that are vulnerable to vandalism.

This is true: admins do, technically, have the power to do all of these things. But they're not supposed to delete articles without community concensus -- it happens fairly often, but it shouldn't, and things might get tightened up over the next few months.

The problem with the article -- apart from the headline -- is that it elides out the difference between what the rules allow and what sometimes happens when admins bend those rules. It's as if it had said "The United States has a clear power structure that gives members of congress the authority to gerrymander their districts to preserve their power": technically true, but misleading because according to the rules, congress isn't really supposed to do that. Language like this might be acceptable in the humanities, but it's bad journalism. (On reflection, maybe I'm being charitable: I'm going to try to contact the Times and see if the reporter knew admins weren't supposed to delete articles on their own.)

* You might think the editors are the ones who propose stories and the reporters the ones who stomp out and cover them, but I'm pretty sure reporters and editors can both propose stories to go into the bin, and reporters are free to volenteer for the stories they want (within a newpaper subsection). (Not sure about this, though.)

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