Although the coverage of the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake has generally brought a lot of favorable publicity for Wikipedia, an incident last week illustrated instead its potential for spreading misinformation and highlighted the need to cite sources when writing articles.
The furor began with a story in the 31 December 2004 issue of the Washington Post. In that day's issue, reporter Jose Antonio Vargas wrote a piece entitled "Seeking the Hand Of God in the Waters". Near its conclusion, the article contained the following statement: "Following the devastation in Lisbon in 1755, priests roamed the streets, hanging those they believed had incurred God's wrath."
Vargas' article was part of the media coverage following the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake, and drawing analogies to a very similar event that hit Lisbon in 1755 fit in quite naturally. It apparently struck a chord, and this particular statement was picked up and repeated in some form by many different sources in the following days.
However, the statement raised the ire of Theresa Carpinelli, host of a Catholic radio show in Canton, Ohio. Questioning this allegation directed against Catholic priests, she tried to track down a source for it and wrote about her efforts in a two-part article (Part One, Part Two) for the portal site Catholic Exchange. Carpinelli concluded that the allegation was unfounded and probably originated with Wikipedia.
The story was picked up last Thursday by John Hinderaker of the Power Line blog. In a post called "Not Even Voltaire Believed This One Archived 2005-08-29 at the Wayback Machine", Hinderaker commented on the disputed sentence, "It appears that it may have originated in an unsourced, wholly imaginary Wikipedia entry."
In trying to find the source of Vargas' statement, Carpinelli reported that she conducted a Google search for "1755 Lisbon priests roamed city hanging people". She found a number of sites that had relied on Vargas, along with Wikipedia (in all likelihood, she probably found a mirror, which is still the first hit besides Carpinelli's own article, rather than Wikipedia itself).
Carpinelli then went to Wikipedia to investigate it further as a possible source (she did not identify the actual article, but reconstructing her actions makes it clear that it was the 1755 Lisbon earthquake article). She speculated that Vargas came across the article by a Google search himself; as of now, the Wikipedia article is the second hit for "Lisbon earthquake".
In the version that Vargas might have looked at, the article contained a sentence reading, "In the following days, priests roamed the city hanging people suspected of heresy on sight, blaming them for the disaster." The language that "priests roamed", Carpinelli determined, had been in the article since its creation by Viajero in October 2003. Carpinelli said she "requested of Wikipedia that a source be cited for this allegation." This request was initially made 6 January, but placed directly into the article, rather than on the talk page, immediately following the disputed statement.
Upon returning 17 January to discover that no source had been provided, Carpinelli this time found her way to the talk page and raised her objection there. Muriel Gottrop responded, "Dear anon user, if you disagree with the article in some way, you are invited to change it."
However, instead of eliminating the statement from the article, Carpinelli acted on this invitation by expanding considerably on the objections she had earlier placed in the article. She said, "I am simply going to leave it for all to read, that the writer cited no source, because no source exists except within the writer's mind." Ultimately, the allegation was edited out by Sandover on 20 January, who also went back to the article last week and began adding outside references that could support its remaining content.
Both Hinderaker and Carpinelli commented on the failure of the Washington Post to run a correction regarding the statement in its article. This shows, one might say, one of the benefits of the wiki system by comparison; Wikipedia has at least managed to correct its information, albeit more slowly than it might have if Carpinelli had just removed the material from the article herself.