Reuters tracks evolution of Ken Lay's death on Wikipedia

The sudden death of former Enron CEO Kenneth Lay last week brought renewed media attention to how editors respond to current events on Wikipedia articles. Reuters came out with a widely reprinted story focusing on some of the early changes to Lay's article, with the headline "Ken Lay's death prompts confusion on Wikipedia".

How the editing unfolded

News reports of Lay's death began appearing around 14:00 UTC on 5 July. The first Wikipedia edit reporting Lay's death (at 14:01 UTC) was actually in error, as it gave the date of his death as 3 July. This was fixed in the following edit, and the first reported cause of death, at 14:03 UTC, correctly indicated "an apparent heart attack." This was changed to suicide two minutes later, and Reuters only began its chronology after this point. Their timeline included both causes being mentioned simultaneously, then backpedaling to saying the cause was "yet to be determined", an edit attributing the supposed suicide to Lay's "guilt of ruining so many lives", and finally restoration of a heart attack as the cause.

All of this transpired by 14:12 UTC, when the article was semi-protected, which cut down on the problems with this particular issue in the article. Interestingly, before semi-protection all of the edits indicating a cause of death, whether correct or erroneous, came from unregistered users. Reuters did note the later insertion and removal of some "speculation as to the cause of the heart attack" connecting it with stress from Lay's recent criminal trial and conviction.

Criticism and analysis of the story

As Mathias Schindler noted, in the rush to put the story out on its wire service, Reuters itself managed to misreport the source of its own information about the cause of Lay's death. The initial version of the story said the information came from a Lay family spokeswoman. Subsequently a corrected version appeared, indicating that the spokeswoman only confirmed the death, not the cause; the report of a heart attack had come from a pastor at the family's church. By the time Reuters published, more than six hours had transpired since the initial reports of Lay's death. Reuters previously contributed to publicity over a mistranslated quote from Jimmy Wales at last year's Wikimania conference purporting that Wikipedia would start permanently freezing articles once they reached a sufficiently high level of quality (see archived story).

Aside from this error, some criticism was directed at the sensationalism of the headline. Andrew Lih dismissed the notion that "confusion" was the problem or that Wikipedia was "reeling", as a subsequent headline on put it, "rather irresponsibly" according to Lih. The accuracy of the story itself garnered less objection, but the reporting in the body of the article didn't explicitly reach the conclusion contained in the headline, much like last month's New York Times story on semi-protection (see archived story). The Times subsequently issued a correction and changed its headline after Wales complained.

In an analysis on his blog, Lih concluded that the evolution of the Lay article was actually fairly routine for the circumstances. From his background as a journalism professor, he compared it to the typical "sausage factory tour" of a newsroom where the parts of a story are put together as a deadline approaches. Lih concluded that the Reuters story was an example of "parachute journalism" where the reporter wrote from a perspective on the outside of a community, but without taking the time to understand it.

The Washington Post also carried a follow-up on the story Sunday in its Web Watch column by Frank Ahrens. Ahrens declared himself "a fan of Wikipedia" but said the incident "exposed the critical weakness of Wikipedia that prevents it from becoming the go-to source for Internet knowledge that it ought to be." He pointed to the expectations of reliability people have for an encyclopedia and the problems when this is misused to serve an agenda. On the CBS Public Eye blog, Vaughn Ververs thought this criticism was "a touch over-the-top for such a short-lived incident". But Lih agreed that it is problematic to approach Wikipedia "with the same expectations as a uniformly and systematically edited publication". He suggested trying to manage expectations while also systematically improving quality through such efforts as WikiProjects.

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