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Media praises, pans Wikipedia, uses it for corrections

With the London bombings prompting increased press coverage of Wikipedia and its sister projects, a spate of reviews appeared in the media this week ranging from the glowing to the dismissive. Also, in a change of pace from journalists pointing out errors in Wikipedia that want fixing, some are now finding Wikipedia being used to correct their own errors.

Hot, cold, lukewarm reviews

Contrasting views emerged this week from Fort Worth, Texas and Rochester, New York as columnists considered how useful and informative Wikipedia is. In the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, columnist Susan Barnes looked briefly at the history of the project, claiming that it now had 440,000 articles in the English language version [1] (the correct figure is currently almost 640,000). She noted the problems that arise through not knowing whether experts in a field have worked on articles in that field, and said that 'in some cases, a recognized expert in a subject area may not be respected or supported by the rest of the Wikipedia community'. Overall, Barnes's view was that 'for information about popular culture, the Wikipedia is a gold mine of information. However, it might not be the best source for an academic paper.'

In Texas, meanwhile, a more positive assessment emerged, with Heather Svokos of the Star-Telegram claiming to be 'infatuated' by an encyclopaedia that can tell you 'almost anything' [2]. Svokos felt that the wiki philosophy would always raise questions about credibility, but that 'as much as it's been criticized, it's also been praised for its free distribution, wide range of topics and communal spirit'. She spoke to Jimmy Wales, who said his personal favourite articles were Heavy metal umlaut and inherently funny word. He was also reported as saying that Wikipedia relies on a core community of a few hundred volunteers, who have 'tools to be able to quickly revert changes or block people from doing things that are bad'.

Finally, a predictably negative outlook from PC Magazine columnist John C. Dvorak, who took aim at wikis and Wikipedia in particular this week. Known for his editorials pooh-poohing various technology trends, Dvorak came up with this analysis: 'While the Wikipedia does have great value at the moment, it has been worked on mostly by idealists rather than vandals.' Ultimately, he concluded, the undesirable aspects of public involvement would cause wikis to deteriorate through a sort of entropy, of which he cited the article on Noam Chomsky as an example.

Wikipedia and the London bombings

One of the most commonly praised aspects of Wikipedia is its ability to keep track of current events, and in the light of the 7 July 2005 London bombings this has once again attracted comment. Canadian newspaper the Globe and Mail reported that 'the huge audience watching news broadcasts used the Wikipedia to focus those broadcasts back into a single, coherent story', and said that Wikipedia's coverage of the event felt like 'something of a coup' [3]. The Chronicle of Higher Education said that 'the value of all that content -- and the speed with which it made its way online -- makes a powerful case for the benefits of wikis'.

UK journalism website reported that Wikinews had seen an eight-fold increase in traffic following the bombings [4]. The site compared the different approaches to covering the event between the two Wikimedia projects, with Wikinews encouraging original reporting while Wikipedia only reporting information already available in a reliable source. Erik Moeller answered questions about the credibility of Wikinews, saying 'Media consumers should generally be critical and observant, whether they're using Time Warner-controlled media, News Corporation-controlled media or people-controlled media'.

The article pointed out that while Wikipedia has 75 times the readership of Wikinews, it only has five times the number of editors, pointing to an impressive degree of reader participation in the news project. The Guardian's director of digital publishing said he was not convinced that a wiki could ultimately deliver a reliable news source, but said that 'Everything on the internet is about acquired trust, and news sites earn their spurs with each news story'.

Wikipedia less amusing for Czechs these days

Czech Republic magazine Czech Business Weekly this week looked at Wikipedia, calling Wikipedians 'the crazy people who work for free' [5]. The article said that Wikipedia had recently announced the creation of its millionth article (although this mark was in fact passed nearly a year ago), and noted that the 'enormous' number of volunteers working on the site were making something that 'actually works'.

The article suggested that Wikipedia had once used a software translator to populate non-English sites - something certainly never done automatically but perhaps done for individual articles by well-meaning Wikipedians using online translation tools. Lamenting the absence of 'humorous language mutations', the article said that 'Czech readers, for example, learned that hairy legs were “hair that multiplies on legs people, generally at commencement of adulthood.” And that some people are forced to “lead the practices love wood-shaving legs.”

Newspapers corrected

This week, newspapers around the world have found themselves contradicting information found in Wikipedia. In South Korea, The Korea Times found itself upbraided by a reader, who wrote in to complain about a piece which had listed South Korea as the nation with the third-highest population density in the world [6]. Complaining that he had seen the error several times in the newspaper, a reader from Donghae City in Gangwon Province noted that 'several internet resources', such as and Wikipedia, gave Korea its correct ranking of 12th in the list of countries by population density.

Meanwhile in the United Kingdom, The Guardian erred in a mention of the 1936 Jarrow March, a landmark in the history of the British Labour movement. The paper described the march as running from York to Aldermaston. A few days later, the paper's daily corrections and clarifications column noted that the march passed neither of these places, and noted that 'the route, with overnight stops, is fully listed on Wikipedia' [7].

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