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Finding truth in Sandy Hook

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By Drmies
President Obama's remarks on the day of the shooting
The views expressed in this op-ed are those of the author only; responses and critical commentary are invited in the comments section. The Signpost welcomes proposals for op-eds at our opinion desk.

This week's big story on the English Wikipedia is obviously the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting (which, by the time you read this, may be renamed 2012 Connecticut school shooting). Quickly created and nominated for deletion not once but twice, and both times speedily kept, the article saw the expected flurry of edits (a look at the history suggests an average of at least one a minute over the first day and a half) and more than half a million page views on the first full day.

Controversy came quickly from a combination of two factors: the eagerness of editors—some new to Wikipedia—to report everything that was reported, and the eagerness of the media to report everything that was said or suggested. Errors resulted and so did edit-warring, but the decision to semi-protect the article was not made until two serious biographies of living person (BLP) violations. First, an IP editor placed a link in the article to the Facebook page of someone with the same name as the person erroneously identified by the media as the shooter, and soon afterward another IP editor placed links smack-dab in the article to photographs ripped from that Facebook page and posted on the internet. Those edits were subsequently rev-deleted.

The decision to semi-protect was immediately contested in the court of public opinion, in this case the article's talk page, since the administrators noticeboard (AN) was uncommonly quiet—perhaps involved editors were too busy dealing with edit conflicts on the article talk page to go there. A thread on AN indicated support for the decision, and semi-protection was later lengthened by Dennis Brown.

There was also discussion on AN and linked pages about semi-protecting the talk page: as of the time of writing this has not been done, but the possibility of BLP violations at the article is taken seriously by a number of the editors and admins who are monitoring the situation, guiding discussions, and answering edit requests—among others, Pol430, MrX, Ryan Vesey, Barek, Uncle G, Masem, and Dennis Brown. Relevant to the scenario is WP:BDP: posting information on recently deceased persons "has implications for their living relatives and friends", and the BLP policy still applies.

Further discussion on AN may lead to a more concentrated effort to handle the fallout from such dramatic events. Masem suggested a shortcut leading to a page with some behavioral guidelines: "a shortcut of accepted admin steps to take that have been accepted and need no discussion in the very short term after such events (eg, is semi-prot of the article appropriate, is creating and full prot of names associated with the event appropriate, etc.); these are decisions that after the initial flurry of edits can be come back to evaluate but in the short term to avoid disruption".

In the meantime, our coverage attracted the attention of the Nieman Journalism Lab, which ran an update with interesting stats on the development and growth of our Sandy Hook article. The Nieman article gave a shout-out to User:Wrong Way Go Back, and was quite positive about how collaborative the editing environment was after the initial few hours: "The ability for these collaborations to unfold as smoothly as they do appears to rest on the ability for Wikipedia editors with newswork experience to either supplant or compliment [sic] the work done by amateurs who first arrive on the page".[1]

School shootings and other high-profile events will continue to occur and to cause problems for Wikipedia editors. Considering that there is an unstoppable drive to write, expand, and update these articles, we are in the same boat as some of the other "new" media whose problems were highlighted in a recent story on American National Public Radio (NPR). According to that story, early coverage in the media is often wrong, and even the New York Times had a "staggering" number of errors. Why? According to a Times editor on the NPR report, "journalistic missteps were driven by the push to meet the speed of expected social media platforms".

As Wikipedia editors, we do not, I believe, have a responsibility to be the first to report anything; but it's a matter of fact that this is how articles are written, expanded, and updated. However, the NPR story cited Dave Cullen, author of Columbine, in which he debunks as myths all the truths we thought we knew about the "trench coat mafia" being bullied by the jocks. Wikipedia articles are more like Cullen's book than they are like blog updates, since they are durable if not always stable; we have, then, the responsibility as encyclopedists to get it right—to get it righter.


  1. ^ Keegan, Brian (18 December 2012). "How does Wikipedia deal with a mass shooting? A frenzied start gives way to a few core editors". Nieman Journalism Lab. Retrieved 19 December 2012.
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  • Definitely. Wouldn't immediate semi-protection or PC-ing of pages like this work to keep away the less desirable edits? — Crisco 1492 (talk) 23:18, 19 December 2012 (UTC)[reply]
    • Certainly, but the same argument could be made that semi-protecting the entire encyclopedia would serve the same purpose. We do not do that, and we are reluctant to do it for individual articles, for a very good reason: that we want IPs and new users to edit articles. We only reluctantly shut them out if there are too many vandals out and about, but it's not a desirable state. Powers T 23:33, 19 December 2012 (UTC)[reply]
  • Seems to me that such an article would be a perfect opportunity to test out PC on a current high viewed and edited article. We can see if it works well or not in such a situation. That should be done next time. SilverserenC 00:59, 20 December 2012 (UTC)[reply]
  • Maybe--but who gets to approve the edits, admins or regular editors also? Besides, I wonder how that works when you have an edit per minute and want to reject an earlier edit. It's an interesting proposition, though. But what you're doing, then, is shrinking the number of gatekeepers even further. I'm not saying that's a bad thing: it probably is a good thing. At the same time, there will be a lot more clamoring about censorship. I'm surprised that it's actually relatively quiet on the talk page as far as that is concerned.

    I tell you what, it's certainly something to consider next time, yes. Drmies (talk) 03:22, 20 December 2012 (UTC)[reply]

  • I went back to check; indeed. Ah well, Demiurge, it's cutting-edge journalism. I tell you what, that article is chockful of data; a geek could have a field day with it. And it's interesting to see how we are studied... Drmies (talk) 03:22, 20 December 2012 (UTC)[reply]
  • I think where we can do better than established outlets are in two areas
    1. We do not need column inches or minutes of commentary, therefore we do not need to report poorly sourced information
    2. What we do report is always sourced, and in the early stages should always be explicitly attributed - in a sense, by doing this we can only be reporting truth

The rush to report is not wholly negative, people come to us for information, and that it is recent is no reason per se to exclude it. And while the editorial decisions on what to leave out and what to put in do benefit form being a little on the conservative side, it is important to remember we are only documenting as a tertiary source and are capable of revising the content rapidly. On the other side of the coin, we need to remember that, deny it as they might, journalists will also be turning to Wikipedia, though they seem to be better at understanding our nature of recent years. Rich Farmbrough, 20:52, 20 December 2012 (UTC).[reply]


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