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Wiki journalism in action

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on August 2, 2007 at 4:45:06 pm

Wiki journalism in action


Wikinews was launched in 2004 as an attempt to build an entire news operation on wiki technology. The experiment has not had the same success as Wikipedia, Eva Dominguez (2006) argues, "because, in most cases, the authors do not write about events or facts they have gathered at first hand, but which they have learned through the media."




Where Wikinews – and indeed Wikipedia - has been most successful, however, is in covering large news events involving large numbers of people, such as Hurricane Katrina and the Virginia Tech Shootings, where first hand experience, or the availability of first hand accounts, forms a larger part of the entry, and where the wealth of reportage makes a central ‘clearing house’ valuable.


Thelwall & Stuart (2007) identify Wikinews and Wikipedia as becoming particularly important during crises such as Hurricane Katrina, which "precipitate discussions or mentions of new technology in blogspace."


Mike Yamamoto (2005) notes that "In times of emergency, wikis are quickly being recognized as important gathering spots not only for news accounts but also for the exchange of resources, safety bulletins, missing-person reports and other vital information, as well as a meeting place for virtual support groups." He sees the need for community as the driving force behind this.


In June 2005, six months after the launch of Wikinews, the LA Times decided to experiment with a ‘wikitorial’ on the Iraq war, publishing their own editorial online but inviting readers to "rewrite" it using wiki technology.


The experiment received broad coverage in both the mainstream media and the blogosphere. Ross Mayfield (2005) of SocialText, a company that creates wikis, was sceptical before the experiment began:


"Offering up otherwise finished text for rewrite has limited effect. Generally, wikis can work best when something is slightly unfinished, when room for contribution is left clear. Finished text leads people to drop in links or short comments. Quite different from wikitechture that involves people in the process of production and encourages development of shared practices. Also, this is a marked departure from the reference model most public wiki users know, the neutral point of view of Wikipedia. Almost begs for edit wars. But starting with the least newsy section of the news could be a good place to start."


Mayfield’s predictions were more than realised, as Glaister (2005) described:


"By early morning, readers were inserting a tone that was more shrill than the high-minded balance of the original: "The Bush administration should be publicly charged and tried for war crimes and crimes against humanity."


"At 9am, the editorial was erased by a reader and substituted with another. Bizarrely, the new version echoed the position of the original.


"By mid-morning, the editorial had been replaced by the more reductive "Fuck USA".


"By lunchtime, the founder of Wikipedia got in on the act, "forking" the editorial into two pieces, representing opposing viewpoints.


""I'm proposing this page as an alternative to what is otherwise inevitable, which is extensive editing of the original to make it neutral ... which would be fine for Wikipedia, but would not be an editorial," wrote Jimbo Wales, who advised the paper on its experiment.


"At 4am the paper's managing editor got a call from the office. Explicit images known as "goatses" had appeared on the wikitorial page. The experiment was terminated. "


In September 2005 Esquire magazine used Wikipedia itself to ‘wiki’ an article about Wikipedia by AJ Jacobs. The draft called on users to help Jacobs improve the article, with the intention of printing a ‘before’ and ‘after’ version of the piece in the printed magazine. He included some intentional mistakes to make the experiment "a little more interesting"


The article received 224 edits in the first 24 hours, rising to 373 by 48 hours, and over 500 before the article was ‘frozen’ in order to be printed. Jacobs later wrote (2005a) "I was riveted to my computer, pressing refresh every 45 seconds to see the next iteration … I feel like I should submit all my articles to the community to get them Wikipedia-ized. I can't wait to print this in Esquire magazine."


Wired’s experiment in 2006 also involved an article about wikis. When writer Ryan Singel submitted the 1,000 word draft to his editor, "instead of paring the story down to a readable 800 words, we posted it as-is to a SocialText-hosted wiki on August 29, and announced it was open to editing by anyone willing to register." (Singel, 2006a).


When the experiment closed,


"there were 348 edits of the main story, 21 suggested headlines and 39 edits of the discussion pages. Thirty hyperlinks were added to the 20 in the original story. 


"One user didn't like the quotes I used from Ward Cunningham, the father of wiki software, so I instead posted a large portion of my notes from my interview on the site, so the community could choose a better one." (Singel, 2006a) 


Singel felt that the final story was "more accurate and more representative of how wikis are used" but, significantly, not a better story than would have otherwise been produced: 


"The edits over the week lack some of the narrative flow that a Wired News piece usually contains. The transitions seem a bit choppy, there are too many mentions of companies, and too much dry explication of how wikis work.


"It feels more like a primer than a story to me."


However, continued Singel, that didn't make the experiment a failure, and he felt the story "clearly tapped into a community that wants to make news stories better ... Hopefully, we'll continue to experiment to find ways to involve that community more."


It is likely that most examples of wiki journalism exist outside traditional news organisations. Dorroh (2005) notes: "Volunteers are perusing thousands of pages of U.S. government documents, obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union, that detail treatment of detainees at Guantánamo Bay Naval Base. The group is using a wiki to report its findings", while the lists of wikis at Wikia and Wikipedia include many that would be considered examples of journalism. There may also be more subjects of journalistic coverage who decide to launch their own wikis to appeal directly to the public, as cyclist Floyd Landis did when he was faced with doping charges (Hughes, 2007).



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