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The Wikipediazation of the mainstream media

One of the core principles that underlies the Wikipedia is that of verifiability. The Wikipedia says:

All information in Wikipedia must be verifiable…. Verifiability, and not truth, is one of the fundamental requirements for inclusion in Wikipedia; truth, of itself, is not a substitute for meeting the verifiability requirement. No matter how convinced you are that something is true, do not add it unless it is verifiable. [Emphasis in the original.]

That principle of verification is expressed in the Wikipedia prohibition against original research.

The prohibition against OR means that all material added to articles must be attributable to a reliable published source.

A final key principle of the Wikipedia is a neutral point of view.

Editing from a neutral point of view (NPOV) means representing fairly, proportionately, and as far as possible without bias, all significant views that have been published by reliable sources. [Emphasis in the original.]

The Wikipedia policies I’ve listed are both a great weakness and a limitation of the Wikipedia because in practice, it is easy to get some things into the Wikipedia – all you need is a newspaper to say it first and it is considered reliable. Other things are very hard to document, and what is easy to do is more often done than what it is hard to do. What sometimes happens at the Wikipedia, and in particular with topics on current events, is that the Wikipedia becomes more or less a summary of selected online newspaper coverage.

The Wikipedia principles I have described are wholly inappropriate for journalists. Journalists must be able to verify what they say (watch the movie All the President’s Men for superb dramatization of this principle), but they must often go beyond published sources and do original research into sources that they can verify, but the public in practice cannot1.  Just as it is easy to get something into the Wikipedia just because a newspaper says it, it is easy to get something into a newspaper when a politician or their spokesperson says it – so long as it makes a good sound bite, whether it is true or not. “There are death panels” is sexy; “there are no death panels” is not. “Controversy swirls around death panels” is the sexiest of all.

Rather than merely repeating both sides of an issue, when one of those sides is a flat-out lie (e.g. Sarah Palin’s death panels), I believe that is the responsibility of every journalist to identify the lie each and every time they repeat it. Lies do not deserve equal billing. The media in the main is not doing this2.

When journalists think that their job is done after they report what both sides have said on an issue, without checking and reporting the truth of those statements, they turn the media into the Wikipedia, and we already have a very fine Wikipedia, thank you very much.


1The birthers have an interesting take on this. They want to engage in original research and verify facts personally, rather than relying on the press who traditionally had this role. I think that the rise of birtherism is a symptom of the deteriorating credibility of the press, due in part to their abdication of fact checking and truth reporting in favor of sound bytes and reporting controversy.

2There are, of course, exceptions to the rule. This is why I am so very appreciative of the work of FactCheck.org and Politifact.com. I appreciate good investigative journalism, such as when CNN went to Hawaii to expose Donald Trump’s clown show about Obama’s birth certificate.

Recently, the media have reported on Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s Cold Case Posse in Arizona and labeled the Posse’s results as long-discredited. I give them points for accuracy in labeling, but such labels carry little weight when a careful reading the media article shows that the label was not verified with any independent research nor referenced to competent authority.

I further think that the abdication of the media’s fact checking role has led to the unprecedented growth in attack ads and the dumbing down of recent political campaigns.

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17 Responses to The Wikipediazation of the mainstream media

  1. avatar
    JPotter March 13, 2012 at 4:53 pm #

    Excellent article, Doc.

    And for all you Obots in the Tulsa area …. I know you’re out there … (ooooh, me! me! me!) ….

    Presidential Lecture Series, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward
    Tuesday, March 27, 2012 from 07:30 PM to 09:30 PM

    Journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein will speak together at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 27, in the Donald W. Reynolds Center. The lectures are free and open to the public; no tickets, registration or reservations are required.

    The Reynolds Center seats 8,000 …. bring the kids and fill up the house.

    As a prelude, there is a free screening of All the President’s Men on March 12th …. which was …. last …. night.

  2. avatar
    Scientist March 13, 2012 at 6:37 pm #

    The press has sunk to the lowest common denominator. It used to be that stuff reported in the Enquirer was simply ignored. Now it has to be commented on by the New York Times because it’s out there. The end result is seen in the Murdoch affair.

  3. avatar
    RuhRoh March 13, 2012 at 8:14 pm #

    I wonder how much of the current problem can be attributed to the 24 hour news cycle. The emphasis in most news organizations seems to be on being “first”, rather than “accurate”.

  4. avatar
    Dr. Conspiracy March 13, 2012 at 8:25 pm #

    Press mentions that in his book..

    RuhRoh: I wonder how much of the current problem can be attributed to the 24 hour news cycle. The emphasis in most news organizations seems to be on being “first”, rather than “accurate”.

  5. avatar
    G March 13, 2012 at 8:50 pm #

    I agree with both of you and with Doc C. in regards to how journalism and our modern media have completely degraded and dropped the ball. I think you’ve all hit on a number of valid reasons, causes and consequences. The false equivalency BS is one of the biggest factors of causing both the decline and the problems.

    We are reduced to nothing but namby-pamby sensationalized infotainment. Often loud and repetitive, but almost always lacking substance.

    RuhRoh: I wonder how much of the current problem can be attributed to the 24 hour news cycle. The emphasis in most news organizations seems to be on being “first”, rather than “accurate”.

    Scientist: The press has sunk to the lowest common denominator. It used to be that stuff reported in the Enquirer was simply ignored. Now it has to be commented on by the New York Times because it’s out there. The end result is seen in the Murdoch affair.

  6. avatar
    RuhRoh March 13, 2012 at 9:24 pm #

    I can see why some news organisations become dependent on blogs and social media as sources, as in some situations it actually is a decent news source. Emergencies are a good example. I’m networked with many animal lovers on social media, and I can think of several instances in which I found veterinarians and municipalities tweeting about their willingness and ability to take animals (including large animals like horses) in instances of hurricanes, fires, etc. I retweeted that info and helped some friends in affected states to find shelter for their animals and/or livestock.

    The Arab Spring also was largely a social media phenomenon.

    I guess the difference is knowing when to verify and advertise as such and when one is simply repeating rumor.

  7. avatar
    RuhRoh March 13, 2012 at 9:26 pm #

    Dr. Conspiracy: Press mentions that in his book..

    That makes me more interested in reading it!

  8. avatar
    Dr. Conspiracy March 13, 2012 at 9:43 pm #

    I grew up in a two-station TV market. News either came from Cronkite or from Huntley/Brinkley.

    Today one can pick the news source that says what one wants to hear and there are a variety of news sources to cater to tastes biased across the political spectrum.

    I want to think for myself, so I avoid both Fox News and MSNBC, sending my check every year to public radio.

    G: I agree with both of you and with Doc C. in regards to how journalism and our modern media have completely degraded and dropped the ball.

  9. avatar
    keith March 13, 2012 at 10:46 pm #

    Dr. Conspiracy: I want to think for myself, so I avoid both Fox News and MSNBC, sending my check every year to public radio.

    We had all three networks in Tucson and they were all good. We preferred NBC for “viewer friendly” dinner time news, but if something really important going on it was CBS and Cronkite every time. ABC seemed to have the best science (read rocket launch/ moon landing) coverage.

    Hands down my favorite has always been what I still, to this day, call the “McNeil/Lehrer Report”.

    One of the public stations in Australia started showing “The News Hour” a few years ago, and though it is on at a time when I have difficulty catching it, many, many, many of my Aussie friends that had the impression that American TV news/current affairs was horrible (and I have to agree that it has sunk to extreme depths since I have been gone), absolutely swear by it as the best thing they have ever seen.

    When I left the US, there were three networks that competed to get the story right and to give a unique view at the same time. In Oz, there were five networks that all produced the same stories, taking overseas content from the same source (generally BBC, some CNN) and used the exact same commentary (and yet they thought they were the best informed public in the world). That has changed in the US (for the worse), but not in OZ. Only SBS (that broadcasts “The News Hour”) is doing something different and using a lot of footage from Al Jazeera. It is a breath of fresh air.

  10. avatar
    US Citizen March 14, 2012 at 4:35 am #

    Regarding Wikipediazation, it was just announced that Encyclopedia Brittanica has ceased printing books.
    They’d been doing it for 244 years.

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-17362698

  11. avatar
    Northland10 March 14, 2012 at 7:36 am #

    I recall Bill O’Reilly mentioning the same thing a few years back in response to why there were constant news reports about Paris Hilton and such. Not only do they have to be “first” then “accurate,” they also have to figure out how to fill 24 hours instead of just the evening news.

    RuhRoh: I wonder how much of the current problem can be attributed to the 24 hour news cycle. The emphasis in most news organizations seems to be on being “first”, rather than “accurate”.

    Dr. Conspiracy: Press mentions that in his book..

    G: We are reduced to nothing but namby-pamby sensationalized infotainment. Often loud and repetitive, but almost always lacking substance.

  12. avatar
    Adrien Nash March 14, 2012 at 11:34 pm #

    The dumbing-down of America is the result of cultural revolution of the 60’s when the ethic of dropping-out and turning on and ingesting things that were high-excitement, fast-reward pleasures, whether that be booze or drugs or mindless music. It was later accelerated by the advent of fast-cuts music videos with multiple edits per second. The era of the highly-shortened attention span had arrived, and bothering with the time-consuming process of learning things was a thing of the past. After all, one can get all their news from John Stewart, right? But seriously, what’s with an educational system that graduates every stump that passes through their baby-sitting system? 12 years of schooling and some still can hardly read? And nothing is done by the system itself to improve things. We’re on the path to ever greater ignorance and indifference on the part of the American public.

  13. avatar
    G March 15, 2012 at 12:44 am #

    Hey, you’ve actually made some points that I kind of agree with – that there has been a trend of speeding things up, shortening information, etc. which does reinforce shorter and shorter attention spans.

    I do also agree that there seems to be a general degradation in pushing for academic rigour, particularly in preparing our children with sufficient math and science skills necessary to compete in the modern global marketplace.

    There has always been a fair amount of ignorance and indifference out there. I completely agree those are definitely areas of concern that are far too inadequately looked into and addressed. However, I think these problems have existed in various forms for a long time and to some extent, we are simply more aware of them because the ease and access of 24/7 media and internet also allow for folks to get a greater sense of what is going on around us, including seeing ignorance on display.

    Adrien Nash: It was later accelerated by the advent of fast-cuts music videos with multiple edits per second. The era of the highly-shortened attention span had arrived, and bothering with the time-consuming process of learning things was a thing of the past. After all, one can get all their news from John Stewart, right? But seriously, what’s with an educational system that graduates every stump that passes through their baby-sitting system? 12 years of schooling and some still can hardly read? And nothing is done by the system itself to improve things. We’re on the path to ever greater ignorance and indifference on the part of the American public.

  14. avatar
    Expelliarmus March 15, 2012 at 3:04 am #

    Q. If a mainstream media article cites to a blog as an authoritative source… then may the article citing the blog provide the “verifiability” that Wikipedia is looking for?

    If so…. you might like this article at http://theweek.com/article/index/225499/obama-is-a-muslim-and-6-other-persistent-conspiracy-theories

    Then again… I’m not sure what qualifies as mainstream media…..

  15. avatar
    Paul Pieniezny March 15, 2012 at 3:12 am #

    Expelliarmus:
    Q.If a mainstream media article cites to a blog as an authoritative source… then may the article citing the blog provide the “verifiability” that Wikipedia is looking for?

    If so…. you might like this article at http://theweek.com/article/index/225499/obama-is-a-muslim-and-6-other-persistent-conspiracy-theories

    Then again… I’m not sure what qualifies as mainstream media…..

    I am not a very good fan of Limbaugh and O’Reilly, but I would trust any newspaper article based on a blog comment by those two before I would trust a newspaper article based on the words of Dr Orly Taitz ESQ,WBUH, a proven liar.

  16. avatar
    Expelliarmus March 15, 2012 at 6:36 am #

    Paul, if you look at the article I linked to, my point is that it is on a magazine site (The Week) which links to this site (obamaconspiracy.org) as its prime source to debunk points 1 through 4.

    So it seems to me that any one of us can go over to Wikipedia, and cite to The Week as to those points and have it pass muster as verifiable, even though apparently we could not get away with having cited to this blog in the first place.

  17. avatar
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