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Working through Wikipedia's vanity fair

The Globe And Mail
Shannon Rupp

VANCOUVER — For anyone steeped in old-media thinking, evidence that the on-line encyclopedia Wikipedia is an unreliable source can be found in a Vancouver publisher's entry about himself.

Kevin Potvin writes and publishes a weekly print tabloid called The Republic of East Vancouver, full of inflammatory opinion pieces reminiscent of the ideological rants of 18th-century pamphleteers. It claims a circulation of 6,000. Yet, according to Wikipedia, Mr. Potvin is a colossus.

The entry says that "some hail Potvin as the latest and best resource for fair investigative reporting and independent media campaigns for truth and accountability." It also reports that his "work has appeared in Harper's and The Atlantic Monthly."

Now for a fact check. According to Harper's magazine, Mr. Potvin had a letter to the editor printed once, in November of 1992. The Atlantic could find no record of Mr. Potvin -- he says he wrote "a substantial letter to the editor" in 1987, but the magazine does not archive letters.

Wikipedia is one of the more popular destinations on the Web, with 2.5 million visitors a month, more than 1.1 million English entries created and edited mainly by its users, and active editions in about 130 languages. Journalists, new-media advocates and academics have had an ongoing debate over its credibility.

Mr. Potvin posted his Wikipedia page himself last October, seeking publicity in his bid for Vancouver city council. He disagreed that it is misleading, or that he inflated his résumé. He also said that he doesn't know the identity of the contributor who (under the pseudonym "bookandcoffee") added the "investigative reporting" accolades to the original entry.

"But I have my readers," he added, "and I think there are people who would say that. It's not a thing which you can be factually wrong or right about. I think I am an investigative journalist. I investigate. I write. But I think facts are just what people say they are."

Alan Bass, chair of the journalism program at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, B.C., said that opinion pieces aren't considered reporting, and that he had "no personal knowledge" of anyone who regarded Mr. Potvin as a significant force.

"What I do know is that for a brief time he belonged to a Canadian Association of Journalists' listserv, which I moderate, and wrote a stream of vituperative posts that did not appear to impress other journalists on the list, to put it politely."

According to new-media thinking, however, Mr. Potvin's entry isn't incorrect. It's simply irrelevant, because no one credible has bothered to edit it.

Wikipedia's name gives the wrong impression, said Simon Fraser University communications professor Richard Smith. The open-source site (meaning it can be written and edited by anyone) is called an encyclopedia only for lack of a better term.

"It's socially produced knowledge. But they didn't know what they were producing when they began," Prof. Smith said, explaining that many of the volunteer editors are authorities on their subjects. "It's like being cool in high school: You build up social capital. You do something uncool and you're gone. If you lied on Wikipedia, you would shame yourself."

He argued that the Potvin case shows the open-source system is working as it should: "If you insert nonsense, someone who knows about journalism will come along and fix it. Or it will be ignored. [Wikipedia] is a process, not a product."

In this process, he said, it is fine to ignore errors or misinformation in obscure entries, because no one cares about them. On pages that matter, participants are so vigilant that they thwart fabulists and vandals with continuous editing.

"There's research on this: When people care, entries are fixed in minutes. But when a nobody lies about himself, no one cares. It's as if those people are peeing in the pool but the pool is so big -- it's more like the Pacific Ocean -- that it makes no difference."

There are limits to free speech even on Wikipedia. Last month, Associated Press reported that Capitol Hill staffers were altering their opponents' entries, to age them or call them names. Wikipedia solved the problem by blocking access from some congressional Internet addresses.

Prof. Smith suggested that such incidents are part of the maturing process, as people learn to use new technology. "People who believe in truth are passionate about it, they persist. But liars eventually get 'liar's fatigue' and go away," he said.

"That's just naive," said Prof. Bass, who spent 19 years as a newspaper reporter and teaches on-line journalism. "I've seen a few passionate shysters who don't give up. That's the trouble with open source: It doesn't account for devious or dangerous people -- those who take extreme measures to misinform others, or those who try to influence public opinion with misinformation."

According to Wikipedia's entry about itself, "the most notable style policy is that editors are required to uphold a 'neutral point of view,' under which notable perspectives are summarized without an attempt to determine an objective truth."

Prof. Smith said it's important for readers to distinguish between the old-media model, in which a professional has checked the information, and a new model in which readers are participants rather than passive bystanders. Unlike most professors, he allows students to cite Wikipedia -- he is optimistic that good ideas will drive out the bad ones.

"It's a more challenging media form: You have to invest a little time and effort to use it. You have to check the editing history -- the more people who have chipped away at it, the more credible it is."

Prof. Bass also allows his students to use Wikipedia, and agreed with Prof. Smith about the site's value in bringing together people with shared interests and building knowledge about arcane subjects. But he said information sites need quality control -- or should at least come with a warning.

"Open source is a lovely idea, but you can't expect everyone to have the resources and time to be their own fact checkers. When people go to a source, it isn't with the knowledge, it's because they want to find out about something.

"It's either a reliable and trustworthy source, or it's not -- you can't leave it to happenstance. It doesn't matter if [errors] are only up for 20 minutes. How many kids have based a school report on that entry in those 20 minutes?"

For his part, Mr. Potvin dismissed professional journalists' views of his tabloid. "I have a problem with the whole philosophy of journalism as it is practised," he said. "I have my style. You [journalists] have your style."

Which suggests that, new media or old, the same guideline applies: Always consider the source.

5 Jun 2006