William Beutler on Wikipedia

From the Mixed-Up Files…

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on September 29, 2010 at 8:04 pm by William Beutler

WBEZ in Chicago is probably best known for being home to the long-running radio series This American Life. But one of their most innovative offerings is an online video series first aired in April 2009 called The Wikipedia Files.

The idea is simple: WBEZ hosts interview entertainment celebrities by reading portions of the Wikipedia articles about them, simply to fact-check the articles within. More often than not, the articles are accurate enough, but they certainly have caught some interesting errors.

I think it’s an ingenious idea, and I hope that other media organizations follow, especially on other subjects. One of the biggest complaints about Wikipedia is that it’s difficult to tell what’s true and what is not. Although contributors are encouraged to add citations, the fact is many do not. In many cases, people add things they know, or think they know, and either cannot find a source or never bother to look one up. Some details may have originated on blogs, most of which Wikipedia generally does not consider to be reliable. This is all the more serious on articles about living persons, which Wikipedia takes more seriously than in other genres. The Wikipedia Files offers editors the chance to verify certain facts at the source, and to establish facts that were not previously known.

In one recent example, WBEZ’s Justin Kaufmann sat down with Antwan “Big Boi” Patton, one half of acclaimed American hip hop duo OutKast, now promoting his also-acclaimed solo debut, “Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty”. Here is Big Boi with Kaufmann:

Big Boi fact-checks his Wikipedia page from WBEZ on Vimeo.

And in fact, at least one fix did come of the interview. On July 20, the same day it was posted, an anonymous, to date one-time editor from Akron, Ohio made the following correction about how he started pursuing music and his early relationship with André “3000” Benjamin:


Alas, this editor did not add a citation to go along with it (so I just did). Otherwise, who’s to know where to go and verify the information contained? This points to the fact that adding citations to Wikipedia is harder than it should be—but you can’t hold that against WBEZ.