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Wikipedia praised for disaster news coverage, scolded for left-wing bias; brief news

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By Alex Stinson and Jarry1250

Virginia Earthquake: Wikipedia as a news source revisited

Although Wikipedia explicitly identifies itself as not a source of news, it is often updated rapidly to reflect current events (for example, its coverage of the 2010 Haiti earthquake received a favourable writeup from traditional news media). As a result, Wikipedia articles were appearing on the front page of news aggregation service Google News as early as June 2009, and often receive large page view spikes when news breaks. This was also the case on Tuesday, with an article on the 2011 Virginia earthquake springing up within minutes of the event, and with Hurricane Irene, whose article grew from nothing to over 100kB as the hurricane approached the city of New York in the latter half of the week.

Such rapid growth attracted its own media attention. The Washington Post dedicated a story to the English Wikipedia's article on the Virginia earthquake, noting that "Wikipedians needed just eight minutes to cooly consign the '2011 Virginia earthquake' to history". The Post's coverage was positive, appearing to praise the encyclopedic, historical tone of the coverage, the quick reversion of vandalism to the article, and the merging of another article on the same event. Online news site The Daily Dot looked instead at the Hurricane Irene article, including favourable quotations from editors to the page who explained the difficulties of editing such a popular article.

Wikinews also has articles on the events: Tropical Storm Irene passes over New York and Magnitude 5.8 earthquake in Virginia felt up and down U.S. east coast. In addition to specific coverage of the Wikipedia articles, a number of news organisations quoted Wikipedia articles for facts and figures on the events and similar ones from history.

Wikipedia's endemic left-wing bias?

Conservative commentator Glenn Beck (above) and Marxist revolutionary Ché Guevara (below) have both had their articles given a "leftist" slant, contends writer David Swindle.

Pulling no punches, David Swindle kicked off a series of articles for FrontPageMag, a conservative website based in California, that analyses the political slant of Wikipedia, proposing to show "How the left conquered Wikipedia". He does this firstly by comparing specific articles from opposite sides of the US political spectrum, and showing how in each pairing the "liberal" personality or organisation receives a more favourable write-up (he does not appear, however, to have attempted a systematic analysis of all pages from each side). In articles that appear well-referenced, he also notes the low percentage of sources used in these articles that he would characterise as "conservative", compared with the relatively high percentage of "liberal" sources. Swindle adds that articles on "leftists" may include controversy, but only where the subject has apologised for his or her error, thus "transforming a failing into a chance to show the subject's humanity".

After a brief interlude discussing the vulnerability of Wikipedia to high-profile BLP-attacks and the real life damage they may cause, Swindle returns to his central thesis of a liberal bias in Wikipedia, attributing it to the characteristics of the average Wikipedia editor (whom he describes as "alone and apparently without a meaningful, fulfilling career"). "Unfortunately, Wikipedia, because of its decision to create an elite group of 'information specialists', has picked its side in [political battles] and is now fighting on the front lines", writes Swindle. As for future essays, the commentator advises that he will demonstrate how "the bias in entries for persons no longer living and historical subjects is less marked and, when present, more subtle".

This is not the first time Wikipedia has been accused of having a liberal bias, the issue has been raised most notably by Andrew Schlafly who asserted that "Wikipedia is six times more liberal than the American public" and started his own website Conservapedia to be a conservative alternative. Last year, FrontPageMag already described Wikipedia as "an Islamist hornet’s nest" (Signpost coverage: "Wikipedia accused of 'Islamofascist dark side'"), and had one author explain her negative experiences while editing Wikipedia by the hypothesis that "Wiki has an Israel problem. Wiki has a Jewish problem" (Signpost coverage: "Wikipedia downplaying the New York Times' anti-semitism?").

In brief

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  • Swindle conflates systemic bias with POV. Rich Farmbrough, 13:11, 30 August 2011 (UTC).[reply]
  • News flash: some POV pusher finds bias wherever he looks. Why does this rate more than a brief note? (talk) 13:49, 30 August 2011 (UTC)[reply]
  • I'm getting sick of seeing the Signpost present attacks on Wikipedia by extremely biased sources and phrasing them as if they were neutral third parties with something meaningful to say. "Wikipedia [...] scolded for left-wing bias" as a headline reads that the Signpost editor agrees that we have a left-wing bias and is merely noting that we were scolded for it. That's why "alleged left-wing bias" or "accused of left-wing bias" works better, or, better yet (and with tongue slightly in cheek), "conservative blogger complains Wikipedia not conservative enough". The same sort of thing happened with that fringe Shakespeare amateur author a short while back that was treated as if he were some expert making a considered opinion instead of some nut job upset at the lack of nuttery. By all means report on these kinds of comments (briefly so as not to give them undue weight), but make sure the writing and headline isn't slanted in favor of them. This is especially important when dealing with dishonest fringe types who will try to use misleading headlines as proof to the rest of the world that Wikipedia admits that we are left-wing biased (and anti-Shakespearean research). DreamGuy (talk) 14:23, 30 August 2011 (UTC)[reply]
    • I apologise on behalf of the editorial board for not using the word "alleged" in the subtitle. I do, however, feel it was clearly implied. I wrote the piece in question, and I wrote it with a cynical slant, so I don't think he got away with it here.
    • I don't, however, agree about limiting the space given to fringe theorists. It is of the utmost importance that their conerns are reported in full, and, if necessary, then ridiculed. Suppressing them does no good at all. - Jarry1250 [Weasel? Discuss.] 14:27, 30 August 2011 (UTC)[reply]
      • I'm not sure that the fact that it is a fringe source is coming across in the article, though. I see your point but I wonder about the value of breathlessly reporting every gripe from a source so bad that we wouldn't use it for a WP article. Gamaliel (talk) 17:36, 30 August 2011 (UTC)[reply]
    • As the person who wrote the subtitles, I agree that it might have been worth to consider, for example, adding quotes around "left-wing bias". But I don't see this as a serious problem - the vast majority of readers will have understood that this referred to an opinion.
    • What is much more important in such cases, and here I agree with DreamGuy's concerns, is to place such criticism in context, and enable the reader to assess its significance. It is an important difference whether such criticism comes from a blog on one of the far ends of the political spectrum, or a reputed publication known for its even-handedness. I tried to add some of this context in the same edit where I filled out the subtitles for this section.
    • As for "a source so bad that we wouldn't use it for a WP article", it's difficult to argue against this assessment, but please note that we are not writing encyclopedia articles here. It may also be worthwhile to recall the scope of the "In the news" section: Its main purpose is to inform Wikipedians about news coverage that may shape the public perception of Wikipedia, be it well-informed or not. Regards, HaeB (talk) 12:09, 31 August 2011 (UTC)[reply]
      • As an avid reader of In The News, I've never had a problem with its deadpan reporting of news coverage critical of Wikipedia. I always read such items as being subtly mocking the criticisms, rather than supporting them; publishing critics' criticisms is often used as a method of indicating a lack of concern about their seriousness. Nor do I think there's an urgent requirement for more scare quotes and use of the word "alleged". The BBC does way too much of this in headline writing, once managing a headline of "Six beheaded by suspected extremists". They might not have been extremists - they might just have been moderates who were having a really bad day. --Demiurge1000 (talk) 18:38, 1 September 2011 (UTC)[reply]
        • Perhaps this column should be titled In the Alleged News. It is becoming increasingly common to conflate opinion and commentary with news but, just as Signpost articles are not encyclopedia entries, op-ed pieces are not "news". It is a Good Thing™ to report what people are saying about us, but these published sayings are not all news. ~ Ningauble (talk) 13:01, 2 September 2011 (UTC)[reply]
  • One has to laugh at Swindle and his obvious POV of "I don't like it!". Maybe we are less conservative as we are a worldwide audidence, ie. not just Americans, who tend to be more conservative. — billinghurst sDrewth 14:42, 30 August 2011 (UTC)[reply]
  • Never heard of Hindus denying the nature of such symbols as the lingam, and there isn't much offered as to how or what instead the lingam symbolises. This comment at HuffPost gives a better picture of the matter.. —innotata 15:25, 30 August 2011 (UTC)[reply]
  • The Left is Right and the Right is Wrong. Count Iblis (talk) 15:29, 30 August 2011 (UTC)[reply]
  • Funny that even though Wikipedia is "an Islamist hornet’s nest", WikiProject Islam is a ghosttown. Kaldari (talk) 17:14, 30 August 2011 (UTC)[reply]
  • Who was it that observed, "Reality has a left-wing bias"? I always remember this statement when the usual people make the usual accusation about Wikipedia's political bias. -- llywrch (talk) 21:22, 31 August 2011 (UTC)[reply]
  • I realize that the pan-clanging propagandist at FrontPageMagazine doesn't actually care about why Wikipedia is like it is, which is to say, vaguely left-of-center while trying to write in a neutral tone. Two reasons: (1) the Conservapedia project siphoned off a certain percentage of Right Wing editors; (2) Historians, as a social group, tend to be left-of-cemter. "History will treat me fairly. Historians probably won't because most historians are on the left," as Nixon put it... That's show biz. Wikipedia does a pretty good job of NPOV, if you ask me. Compare and contrast to Conservapedia, which is a full-on propaganda circus. Carrite (talk) 23:20, 31 August 2011 (UTC)[reply]
  • I took the initiative and removed a really, really misleading / irrelevant piece from ITN. I don't mean misleading as in "I disagree with one party" but misleading in that it tries to make it seem like a news organization did a shoddy job and cited Wikipedia in an article on a questionable fact, when no such thing happened. The Economist never mentions Wikipedia in their article, and they're referencing a well-grounded fact anyway (but in a rude/witty manner, hence the complaint). For the record:
* The Economist found itself in hot water with Hindu readers over its reliance on Wikipedia's characterisation of lingham, a form of Lord Shiva, as a "phallic symbol".
The article in The Economist, , is on Kashmir and off-handedly mentions tourism as important to the region during a lull in hostilities, and notes "Hordes of Hindu pilgrims trek, unmolested, to a sacred penis-shaped lump of ice at Amarnath, a cave temple." (It's The Economist. They're being entirely factual, along with either "witty" or "offensive," depending on your point of view.) This causes some people to get Mad. The HuffPo article links to this 'dialogue' of emails - in which the Hindu American Foundation has seen fit to only publish *their* letters and entirely omit the letters someone at The Economist wrote arguing their position. Quite fair and balanced. Since the second letter mentions Wikipedia, we can presume that The Economist's first made a cutting reference to Wikipedia... but... not in the sense the news hook implies. The letter writer was almost surely mentioning Wikipedia in the sense of "this is obvious and noncontroversial so why don't you look at the first hit you'd see on the Internet" not "dur we just wrote what Wikipedia says." Even if the letter writer somehow had written statements along the lines of the second one, this is a random correspendence with one organization which hasn't even published what was said - not a published news piece. So Wikipedia has nothing to do with this, aside from one HuffPo writer's attempt to use it as a clumsy rhetorical sledgehammer ('hah, they may have mentioned Wikipedia in a non-publicly released correpondence, so I will assume the worst, and clearly Wikipedia was their source for everything, and Wikipedia is unreliable, so they're wrong!').
I won't go into the actual editorial very much aside from the fact that I disagree with it. It's the rough equivalent of getting angry at a publication for calling communion wine "rotting grapes" rather than "the blood of Lord Jesus." Rude? Probably, but they do that to everyone, so. (And this main spat has nothing to do with Wikipedia, either.) SnowFire (talk) 01:22, 1 September 2011 (UTC)[reply]
Thank you, SnowFire, for your in-depth and engaging comment. As the editor responsible for adding the piece, allow me to respond. The purpose of the "In the news" report is to highlight to Wikipedians significant coverage (i.e. the lead stories) or mentions (i.e. the brief reports) of the project in the wider media universe; note that the threshold for inclusion here is not accuracy or comprehensiveness but noteworthiness. This item was included as it served as an insight into the role of Wikipedia in the construction of knowledge and facilitator of debate in the wider web. If you look at the HuffPo piece, the author's representation of the dialogue with The Economist does not invoke Wikipedia in some disquotational metaphoric sense, but as an explicit source for the disputed content. It's true that exacting journalistic standards would push for examination of the original documents and eschew hearsay, and our representation could have been closer in tone to caveat lector, but again, The Signpost for the most part functions as a community newsletter rather than a publisher of high-grade original reporting, and one of highly limited resources of contributor time, access and specialisation. If you are interested, we could certainly use contributors of your diligence. Best, Skomorokh
Oh, I don't fault the news staff on this one. Just from reading the HuffPo article, I'd think that Wikipedia was involved, too, rather than the author apparently... uh... not sure there's a polite term for this, fantasizing? But yeah. If someone from Ohio accused The New York Times of relying on Wikipedia for calling Ohio a "Rust Belt" state which is really insulting since Ohio is doing so much other wonderful stuff these days, this would be worth an ITN slot... if the NYT actually relied on Wikipedia, even for an accepted fact. This case is just weird since such an explicit Wikipedia reliance seemingly never happened.
I'm not sure I'd be up for the thankless task of actually writing ITN, but sure, I'll try and give it a look over early sometimes. (And on that note, thanks for editing The Signpost.) SnowFire (talk) 00:15, 2 September 2011 (UTC)[reply]
  • I would like to thank the above editors for their confirmation that Wikipedia is hopelessly biased. It's always good to know that at least some people nod with approval at Wikipedia's pandemic flaws. Even better that so many are so open about it -- too many prefer to pass over this one in complicit silence. Face it: This project is a pit of politically, religiously, culturally biased slobs who couldn't really care less whether or not a controversial topic is covered fairly. I think that describes the typical Wikipedia editor. Hardly anyone actually editing controversial articles tries to present the best arguments of the side opposing their particular bias. Hardly anyone tries to present the facts that put the other side's POV in the best light. (These aren't the only necessary things for fair coverage of a controversy -- they're just some of the ways to spot a biased editor.) And other editors who don't edit controversial topics don't really care how biased they are. Over in the real world, some people actually try to find that out on both sides and present controversies that way -- but that hardly ever happens on Wikipedia, because most people will not do that in real life and Wikipedia will reflect the failings of most people. This place is utterly and absolutely clueless about what it means to cover fairly topics that are controversial in the real world. Always has been, always will be. It's the nature of this beast. -- JohnWBarber (talk) 03:17, 1 September 2011 (UTC)[reply]
Your comments are the most blatantly biased ones on the page, and yet you are ranting about some imagined bias here being bad. Please see the Illusory superiority article. DreamGuy (talk) 19:41, 2 September 2011 (UTC)[reply]
Calling an opinion biased is like calling water wet. Calling a fellow editor psychologically flawed because he disagrees with you is ... well, you know what that is. I described some good ways of judging bias, and it applies to bias toward any part of the political spectrum. That's more than a rant. Occasionally there have been articles where the bias is right-wing. If you've got such a fine-tuned ear for bias in other media, you should be able to see it in this unprofessional encyclopedia as well. -- JohnWBarber (talk) 22:15, 2 September 2011 (UTC)[reply]
  • I'm not sure that a bunch of editors writing on here that the political Left is objectively correct, is helpful for this project's image of neutrality! I'm fairly certain that more editors self-identify as left-wing than right-wing, and this will have a systematic effect on our content. Youth and higher levels of academic education are generally correlated with left-wing or liberal views, and most of our editor base is drawn from these groups, so I hope I am not saying anything too controversial. But not everybody who has a viewpoint will seek to impose their personal opinions on the articles they edit, while we also have "activist" editors of all stripes. Not just left-vs-right, but a full spectrum of proponents of almost all religious, nationalist, aesthetic, sporting and even technical (Free Software enthusiasts; PC-vs-Mac etc) persuasions! Nixon's comment about historians is probably accurate; Wikipedia draws heavily on academic sources and a majority of academics in some areas (particularly social science) are left-leaning. Again it would be unsurprising if this is reflected on our articles, which tend to synthesize and summarize their scholarship.
But it's also unsurprising that a right-wing advocate performing an unsystematic review of Wikipedia's content will perceive a left-wing bias - this is just an instance of cognitive bias, whereby we tend to notice misrepresentations or criticisms of our own viewpoints, but those directed at people we disagree with tend not to grate or stick out. A similar phenomenon occurs in psychological studies of sports refereeing: fans of both teams tend to feel the umpiring was biased against their own side, even when watching the same footage! No doubt left-liberal readers of Wikipedia feel upset at what they see as corporate influence on articles, insufficient criticism of market-capitalism, too much space devoted to irrationall, unscientific or fringe religious views on matters of philosophy and ethics... so I'm dubious the Signpost should be giving much space to this type of criticism of Wikipedia, as our neutrality will always be a contested area. Partisan claims are much less important than large-scale, systematic studies of Wikipedia's underlying biases (mostly, perniciously systematic as Rich Farmborough points out), comparisons or criticisms of our factual accuracy (which can be measured objectively so less chance for cognitive bias to creep in; even if a left- or right-wing loon rips holes in the veracity of our BLPs we should take them seriously) or the apparently increasingly-numerous professional reviews of our medical information. TheGrappler (talk) 14:53, 1 September 2011 (UTC)[reply]
  • "I'm not sure that a bunch of editors writing on here that the political Left is objectively correct, is helpful for this project's image of neutrality! I'm not sure anyone actually did that. There's a reference to a joke on a comedy show that someone found funy, and someone else quoted a bumper sticker, which could be equally viewed as supporting or mocking the position. Hell, the only comments above that are undeniably endorsing a position seem to be on the opposite side of the political spectrum. DreamGuy (talk) 19:41, 2 September 2011 (UTC)[reply]
  • Whether intended seriously or not, my point was that it doesn't look very good to outsiders! TheGrappler (talk) 22:00, 2 September 2011 (UTC)[reply]
  • I for one have no problem with the idea that Conservapedia will usually be to the right of us, or Liberapedia to the left Now a thoughtful critique that compared us to both of those and also to reality would be interesting, but a Conservative criticising us for being less Conservative than Conservapedia.... It would be worrying if we didn't seem relatively Liberal compared to them.
As for our Che Guevara article, as well as detailing his marital infidelities it describes him as "feared for his brutality and ruthlessness" and details why. It recounts an incident of him killing someone in cold blood. Economic incompetence "Whatever the merits or demerits of Guevara’s economic principles, his programs were unsuccessful. Guevara's program of "moral incentives" for workers caused a rapid drop in productivity and a rapid rise in absenteeism". An overly confrontational attitude that failed to engage the Bolivians. Then there's the bit about him and WMD "A few weeks after the crisis, during an interview with the British communist newspaper the Daily Worker, Guevara was still fuming over the perceived Soviet betrayal and told correspondent Sam Russell that, if the missiles had been under Cuban control, they would have fired them off". Multiple separate and sourced criticisms that to my mind make it a far more balanced article than David Swindle claims. On my reading rather more than the 235 words that Swindle claims were negative. If anyone here is inclined to take Swindle seriously I'd commend reading Che Guevara and doing a word count of the negative bits. Of course word count is an over-simplistic tool even if you get it right; Something as serious as this guy would have used a bunch of nukes if he'd been able to, somewhat eclipses his work running literacy programs and reading literature to his soldiers. ϢereSpielChequers 21:17, 5 September 2011 (UTC)[reply]

Original research?

I suggest you buy a copy of the New Yorker and read the article about the work session at the British Library. I checked only one Wikipedia entry resulting from the Wiki-work, Ruth Traill, and I marked it as Original Research and Synthesis. I wonder how many other WP articles from that session suffer from the same failings? It would be nice to know. Sincerely, a friend to all, including the British Library, GeorgeLouis (talk) 16:55, 4 September 2011 (UTC)[reply]


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