William Beutler on Wikipedia

What’s the Truth, What’s the Use?
On Wikipedia and the Daily Mail

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on February 10, 2017 at 6:00 pm by William Beutler


Earlier this week, Wikipedia editors decided to restrict the use of a publication as a source for information in its articles, and then a funny thing happened: it made international news. First The Guardian, and then many other publications, reported on the outcome of a proposal to prohibit the UK tabloid Daily Mail from reference sections in Wikipedia articles. The first paragraph of the decision summary reads:

Consensus has determined that the Daily Mail (including its online version, dailymail.co.uk) is generally unreliable, and its use as a reference is to be generally prohibited, especially when other more reliable sources exist. As a result, the Daily Mail should not be used for determining notability, nor should it be used as a source in articles. An edit filter should be put in place going forward to warn editors attempting to use the Daily Mail as a reference.

It’s not the first time a source has been “blacklisted”[1]There is no official blacklist. but most of the time it’s because of spamming efforts, and the Daily Mail is by far the most high-profile recent example. In fact, it has the biggest online reach of any news website around the world, according to comScore. An effort is now under way to replace all existing Daily Mail citations with better sources.[2]It has a long way to go.

To understand what happened, it’s helpful to know about how Wikipedia considers the various third-party sources it prefers, allows, and prohibits as citations. The official guideline is called “Identifying reliable sources” and, over the course of several thousand words, it seeks to define sources with a “reputation for fact-checking and accuracy”.

The lengthy discussion on the “Daily Mail RfC”[3]short for “Request for comment” includes numerous examples of why editors believe it fails that test. The pithiest take—

Under NO circumstances should the Daily Mail be used for anything, ever. They have proven themselves to be willing to make up fake quotes and to create doctored pictures, and nothing they say or do is to be trusted. Even in the cases that some of the editors in this discussion believe to be OK (sports scores, for example), if it really happened then the Daily Mail won’t be the only source and if the Daily Mail is the only source, it probably didn’t happen.

—was followed by links to numerous examples of falsehoods and outright fabrications from the last few years.[4]Here, here, and here, for example, with a few cited to the Guardian itself. As the newspaper’s own Wikipedia article demonstrates, the Daily Mail has been the subject of multiple successful libel suits, not to mention other controversies calling the paper’s trustworthiness into question.

The Daily MailTo be sure, the Daily Mail is not the only publication that cares for clicks more than facts, but the determination of editors was that it cares for attention to the exclusion of facts.

An interesting, comparatively ancient[5]I thought I’d written about this, but apparently this just slightly pre-dated The Wikipedian—I was however quoted by Wired about it. example was whether to acknowledge the National Enquirer‘s reporting on then-U.S. presidential candidate John Edwards’ extramarital affair (producing a child, no less) when no one else had confirmed it. Wikipedians argued about it until the story was confirmed by others. The Enquirer received its share of reluctant praise, but it still isn’t generally allowed as a source on Wikipedia.

The media’s fascination with the prohibition may stem from their own trepidation: what if we’re next? They shouldn’t worry—the Daily Mail is an outlier case, and perhaps a useful caution for publications that skirt the line between truth and truthiness in their drive for traffic.

Still, it would be very bad if this became a trend. The difference between “you have to be careful with this publication” and “we simply cannot trust this publication” is hard to define, but important. The latter category should be a very small number. Moreover, Wikipedia should be careful not to apply a political test, even a de facto one, for publications. Wikipedians frequently argue over the political leanings of certain sources, but in all but a few cases, reliability can be established separately from a given point of view. The reasons must be based on trustworthiness of factual reporting, not the gloss added by the writer or by editors.

The reliability of Wikipedia depends on the reliability of reporting in the news media, which is the source of most information in articles about current and recent events. Journalism is in the midst of a long, slow decline accelerated by the internet (first Craigslist, then Facebook) and over the long term, this is bad news for Wikipedia, too. Maybe there is a way for Wikipedia to establish reliability for smaller publications that don’t look like traditional newspapers and lack their reach. But you don’t improve Wikipedia by allowing marginal sources, even if it necessarily limits what can be covered in its virtual pages. Fortunately, the Daily Mail doesn’t report on much that’s encyclopedic to begin with.

P.S. The first part of this post title is taken from a gorgeous non-album track by Radiohead, which happens to be called: “The Daily Mail”. You can listen to it here:

Notes   [ + ]

1. There is no official blacklist.
2. It has a long way to go.
3. short for “Request for comment”
4. Here, here, and here, for example, with a few cited to the Guardian itself.
5. I thought I’d written about this, but apparently this just slightly pre-dated The Wikipedian—I was however quoted by Wired about it.

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