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Teaching Online Journalism

Students’ Use of Wikipedia

In Wikis test students’ research skills, Roger Riddell writes that the increasing use of Wikipedia and “similar online reference tools” is adding urgency to the need to educate people about how to judge the accuracy and reliability of Web information.

Wikipedia got a black eye last year when John Seigenthaler, a former aide to Robert Kennedy and longtime journalist for The Tennessean, found untrue and possibly libelous claims in the biography about him on the Wikipedia Web site. The whole saga was made public, and the false information was corrected. A BBC News story (Dec. 12, 2005) supplies the details. A CNet article (Dec. 5, 2005) provides some additional information.

More recently, Wikipedia has blocked editorial changes posted from certain IP addresses registered to the U.S. Congress because, apparently, people using computers with those addresses (who we might assume would be congressional staffers) have been removing true information about certain members of Congress, in an obvious attempt to whitewash their past. (See Rewriting history under the dome, in the Lowell (Mass.) Sun, Jan. 27, 2006.)

Wikipedia has several strategies for dealing with deliberate attempts to falsify information. Here is a good one related to the Congressional editing practices.

One interesting note about the Seigenthaler tale is that USA Today published an editorial written by Seigenthaler (Nov. 29, 2005), and in this way, the true information was disseminated to millions of people, serving to counteract the false information.

Well. That’s the way it’s supposed to work.

And to Seigenthaler’s great credit — he is a lifelong champion of First Amendment freedoms, after all — he did not bring a lawsuit against anyone.

There’s a line from an elegant U.S. Supreme Court opinion that’s very relevant here:

“[T]he path of safety lies in the opportunity to discuss freely supposed grievances and proposed remedies … the fitting remedy for evil counsels is good ones.”

– Justice Louis Brandeis (concurring), WHITNEY v. PEOPLE OF STATE OF CALIFORNIA, 274 U.S. 357 (1927)

I love Wikipedia. I do agree with Riddell, though, that we MUST teach explicitly how information can be re-written or erased at any time. (Of course, that is nothing new.)

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