William Beutler on Wikipedia

Posts Tagged ‘In the news’

Wikipedia’s Front Page Needs a Dedicated Section to Inform Readers About COVID-19

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on March 13, 2020 at 1:19 pm

Update: as of 5pm ET on Monday, March 16, the front page has one:

Wikipedia's dedicated COVID-19 box

Original post continues below.

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The front page of Wikipedia is visited millions of times every day and hundreds of millions of times every month. Although many users arrive at Wikipedia by finding a specific article through a search engine, the Main Page (as Wikipedians call it) is far and away the most visible real estate across the website and has been for years.

A whole book could be written just about how the Main Page works. Every day the various boxes which make up its features rotate through a “featured article” showcasing the site’s best work, plus three other prominent sections with updating lists of links: “did you know” spotlighting recently improved topics, “on this day” identifying memorable anniversaries, and “in the news” providing links to Wikipedia articles of relevance to world affairs. (That’s only a partial list.) The content for all of these is decided like the rest of Wikipedia: by volunteers who choose to get involved, following a set of reasonable but incomplete guidelines, with plenty of room for discussion about how things should be done.

Wikipedia's main page

“In the news” (ITN) is arguably the most contentious among them. Although Wikipedia is “not news” according to a well-known content policy, contributors here view their editorial decisions similarly to a newspaper editor deciding what should go above the fold, in print or online. Space is limited, anything included necessarily implies a degree of significance. The page outlining the criteria is an interesting read, if you have the time. Many of these debates are about which regional sports championships are meaningful enough for inclusion (college football playoffs? darts competitions?) but sometimes it is much more serious.

Presently, ITN contributors are debating whether they should create a new, temporary section to spotlight information about COVID-19 and the virus that causes it, either within the ITN box or in another box above or below it. Of course ITN is already including links to coronavirus news, but they are choosing very carefully and leaving out a lot because the response efforts, shutdowns, and other developments are generating so much news it would overwhelm everything else if they allowed it to.

And yet, Wikipedia’s readership looks to it for authoritative information and such information about COVID-19 is critical right now as the pandemic worsens.

The suggestion was first made on the project’s talk page on Monday under the heading “Crazy idea: dedicating a section of the Main Page to coronavirus news” and with the reasoning: “This idea may be too drastic, however, but I do think very major ongoing events should have more prominence on the main page.” In my reading of the discussion since, contributors understand the obvious value it would hold for readers alongside concerns about the precedent it might set.

A sampling of comments in the days since:

  • One editor especially opposed warned: “I can see editors arguing that when we get to this next US election where whether Trump stays or not will have similar world-affecting impact will be argued and that we should have a similar box. Which no, we should not be doing at any point”.
  • The counterargument, which seems to have more support but less conviction, can be summarized in this comment: “I do believe that this is going to be the biggest rolling event for most of the world in a very long time. And I think that needs to be reflected on the main page”.
  • Two views of potential COVID-19 ITN expansionsAn outlier view, that the coronavirus isn’t that big a deal: “I think there are other kinds of events which would be more catastrophic (a nuclear war, for example) that we ought to use as the benchmark rather than a pandemic with a relatively low death rate and an admittedly unprecedented level of media coverage”.
  • Some even went so far as to mock up different versions[1]Corrected: Two editors have provided mockups; this post originally said it was one. of the ITN box with a single extra line devoted to coronavirus pages (at right).

I would go further: closer to the original suggestion, I would give it a whole box of its own, with obvious links to the key articles 2019–20 coronavirus pandemic (the global phenomenon), COVID-19 (the disease itself), and SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes it), as well as a simplified version of the newly-created navbox collecting coronavirus-related articles.

Like it or not, Wikipedia is in a unique position to point information-hungry citizens around the world to better information than they can find almost anywhere else (however imperfect it may be, a key concern of the ITN guidelines). Wikipedia’s Main Page is among the most credible pages on the entire internet, its reach is massive, and it is already covering the news and thus giving readers the expectation they will find something relevant here.

Over the years, as their little experiment has become vastly influential, Wikipedians have struggled under the weight of the responsibility. For example, ITN often chooses not to link to articles if their quality is perceived to be too low, especially in its popular “recent deaths” section. This is one of those times that Wikipedians should set aside “this wasn’t my idea of what an encyclopedia is supposed to be” and acknowledge the reality of how Wikipedia is perceived and utilized by its global readership.

Also, it’s not like the Main Page is an essential encyclopedic function borrowed from the days of print publications. It’s entirely the invention of Wikipedia’s editors, it can change, and it should. (I’m not usually an IAR proponent, but this time I am.) It would just be one more frequently updated box on a page full of them. As to the slippery slope argument raised above, the line shouldn’t be that hard to draw: it should apply to matters of global significance where there is an immediate question of health and safety. This would obviously rule out more commonplace events like an election or a hurricane. But it would definitely include a nuclear war.

Once upon a time this website criticized Wikipedia’s decision to go “blackout” for a day in protest of American legislation designed to combat internet piracy. But this is different. The coronavirus is an immediate medical emergency affecting the entire world, and Wikipedia’s WikiProject Medicine has much experience making very careful decisions about how to represent such topics on Wikipedia because it actually can be the difference between life and death.

P.S. Lord knows, Wikinews is no useful source of information. At the time of publication on Friday afternoon, its top story was still this:

Wikinews: "Bloomberg, Warren end US presidential campaigns following Super Tuesday"


1 Corrected: Two editors have provided mockups; this post originally said it was one.