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Wiki journalism in action

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on August 23, 2007 at 4:44:34 pm

Wiki journalism case studies


Wikinews and Wikipedia


It could be argued that journalism in one form or another has been hosted on wikis for almost as long as the technology has existed: the lists of wikis at Wikia and Wikipedia include many that would be considered examples of journalism, such as ShopWiki, for product reviews (Levine, 2006), or WikiTravel, "a worldwide travel guide written entirely by contributors who either live in the place they’re covering or have spent enough time there to post relevant information." (Gillmor, 2004: 150), and Wikipedia's 'current events' section provides a dedicated space for that service's 'news' aspect (Kolodzy, 2006). But perhaps the first major attempt to use wiki technology purely for news-based journalism came out of a suggestion from Wikipedia's Meta-Wiki community (Allan, 2006).


Wikinews was launched by Wikipedia in 2004 with a stated aim to promote the idea of the citizen journalist. Allan notes of the service:

"Mutual trust and cooperation are the key 'checks and balances' guiding the conduct of Wikinews [...] Of particular import for Wikinews is the policy to be followed by users when referring to points of fact. Specifically, all such sources used for information must be cited, and they must be verifiable, at least in principle, by someone else. In the case of original reporting, field notes must be presented on the article's discussion (Talk) page." (2006: 136-7)


It is notable that this citation and transparency of process is rare in commercial news websites.


Lih notes the importance at Wikipedia and Wikinews of the neutral point of view (NPOV) as the central editorial principle, which requires contributors to represent fairly and without bias all significant views included. "Some of the decisions are strikingly similar to those of other professional news organisations. For example, the Wikipedia community’s tendency to avoid the use of the word ‘terrorist’ is similar to the policy adopted by the Reuters news agency." (2004b: 11)


Allan argues the NPOV provides a new approach to the "longstanding, if in my view highly problematic, principle of impartial journalism [...] to the extent that it is made possible by collaborative contributions from across the community of users" (2006, p138), while also noting "No undue influence is exercised by corporate proprietors, nor are market forces brought to bear, when determining what counts as a newsworthy event deserving of coverage." (2006: 140) In other words, impartial journalism may be more achievable when facilitated by wiki technology.


Although Wikinews has been successful in terms of numbers of articles generated, the experiment has attracted criticisms for gaps in its coverage, and the proportion of rewritten material (Allan, 2006). As Dominguez (2006) argues, "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 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). 


Kolodzy describes Wikinews coverage of such major events as follows:

"The first stories have the feel of initial wire service reports on the events. [Wikinews] operates under the premise of publishing first and then editing, albeit the editors are Wikinews users who become contributors. Some edits can involve punctuation, adding a subhead, or correcting spelling. Others add new information, such as the death toll updated by authorities during the London bombing or Prime Minister Tony Blair's statement." (2006: 238)


Yamamoto (2005) feels that such coverage occurs because "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," a process driven by the community, not news organisations.



The LA Times 'wikitorial'


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 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." (2005)


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. "



Esquire's 'Wikipedia article' wiki


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 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."



Wired's 'wiki article' and How-To wikis


In 2006 Wired also experimented with an article about wikis. When writer Ryan Singel submitted a 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."


Since that experiment Wired have launched their How-To Wiki, a blog-style collection of editable how-tos from the technical to topics that would not normally be featured in the magazine ('How to Buy a Mountain Bike').



Other news organisation wikis: CNET, San Diego Tribute, Online Journalism Review


Less well publicised experiments with wiki technology by news organisations include CNET's wikis about interactive television and the Indian technology industry (Dorroh, 2005; Kolodzy, 2006). The India tech wiki initially included "Some scathing comments about the story's "factual errors" on a map, some banal comments about India's progress and some real discussion about the lack of infrastructure in India perhaps slowing its growth" (Anonymous, 2005), but went on to expand into "more than a dozen 'chapters' addressing such topics as competition from other countries and regions, such as Latin America, the next wave of new technology companies, cautions and concerns for tech businesses in India, and even information on the limited representation of the wiki audience" (Kolodzy, 2006: 239). 


More recently, both the San Diego Tribune and the Online Journalism Review have employed wikis to tap into the expertise of their readership. The San Diego Tribune's 'AmpliPedia' (http://wiki.amplifysd.com/) invites its readers to contribute information on local bands, venues and the history of the local music scene. Chris Jennewein, Vice President, Internet Operations, is optimistic. "We haven't yet reached a critical mass, and it may take a number of months, but we're very optimistic. I think wiki journalism is best for stories a level below the big ones, as well as stories that have a long life. I can see citizen journalists using wikis to fill in the details after professionals cover the major points." (Email correspondence, 2007)


The Online Journalism Review launched a collection of wikis in January 2007 at http://www.ojr.org/ojr/wiki/ with mixed results. Editor Robert Niles feels this is perhaps due to the non-standard "Wikipedia"-style software or journalists' lack of experience with the wiki format (Email correspondence, 2007). He has experimented with the format more successfully at specialist online publications ThemeParkInsider.com and Violinist.com.



Internal wikis


As important as the public-facing experiments in wiki journalism are the internal wikis. The N&Opedia at the News & Observer provides a central repository of useful documents for breaking or ongoing stories, as well as information about expertise within the newsroom and general information about competitions and training (Ebbs, 2006). The Columbus Dispatch's newsroom wiki 'Dewey Answers' was started in December 2005, emerging from a local style book for provide other documents such as tipsheets and research, and a source of background information on news events and newsmakers, timelines and buildings. It is controlled by librarians and senior editors, and the newspaper has a monthly 'Dewey Answers meeting' (Hunter, 2006). Likewise, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch also has a research wiki for the research department, containing research and standard procedures (Meiners, 2006). All of these stay closer to the encyclopedia-style, Wikipedia model of wikis, with added document-sharing, intranet-type functions. Access tends to be limited even within the news organisation.



Wiki journalism elsewhere


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 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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