Want to move news. Be a peer-journalist on Wikinews. This will be worth participating in and reading. It is an amazingly cool experiment.
Having run a civic journalism site, Correspondences.org, for the past couple years, I sincerely wonder whether wiki news will be any more informative than any other source. There are a number of reasons why it may be less so.
First, as David Weinberger writes at Release 1.0 today, the problem of separating fact and opinion is susceptible to accretive solutions, such as collaborative editing, but ultimately the final judgment lies with the reader. Weinberger explores how UBio, a collaborative name server system under development by a group of scientists led by David Remsen of the Marine Biological Laboratory and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, manages disputes over the naming of biological species, following a philosophy of inclusiveness and postponement of judgment calls until all views are heard.
Weinberger cites the news-related example of Wikipedia, where battling versions of reality in the entry for George W. Bush have led to a lock-down on changes to the article, which strives for neutrality. Pro- and anti-Bush contributors were injecting opinions into the articles so often that no definitive version was available.
Wikipedia gets much of its value from the fact that when many people filter an article, the bogus and the partisan tend to be dropped. But where the division between facts and values can be made fairly cleanly, the strategy of inclusion and postponement gives rich access to the known facts while putting the decision about values and opinions into the proper hands: those of the individual.
Reporting, like writing history, is a subjective experience even under the best of conditions. A reader depending on a single source of news never gets all the facts, they must explore many sources to assemble even part of the picture. There is, too often these days, a tendency among news outlets to quote one another so that there is a perception conveyed that there is a single version of events, when such a thing seldom exists. If you look at the transcript of an event, even a government transcript, they may be edited differently. For example, the “record” of a Bush campaign speech posted at WhiteHouse.gov, with applause and “boos” aimed at the opponent inserted, will read very differently than an “objective” transcript without those audience reactions noted; moreover, if the opposition releases a transcript of the same event, it may insert different reactions, such as the interruption by a heckler. Which is the correct or full record? None of them.
I think Wikipedia produces great articles on a variety of subjects—the collaborative process is an excellent way to churn out explanations of things and events—but the Bush entry, which is timely due to the fact he is still in office, is sterile and rather kind to the most controversial and divisive president we’ve had in decades. It offers details about Bush’s fraternity, baseball and rugby play and the name of the officer that recommended his promotion in the Air National Guard, but passes over whether he served under the terms of his enlistment with a comment that “These issues were publicized during the 2004 campaign by Texans for Truth and other Bush critics. See George W. Bush military service controversy for details.”
Granted, one could follow the link about the service controversy, but given the intensity with which Bush attacked his rivals’ military records throughout both his presidential runs (covered in only three paragraphs further down in the article), an unbiased editor would, in my opinion, have done more with the subject in the context of Bush’s biography rather than outside of it.
Here’s where I disagree with elements of David Weinberger’s conclusion that the decision about values and opinions must be left to the individual; this is impossible if the medium reduces facts to a single report. We don’t rely on the individual to decide much of anything in these days of mass marketing and, yet, this is the reality we live with and it is impossible to wish it away. Some filtering and decision-making is necessary if the reader is not going to be forced to consume all versions of events in order to achieve full knowledge and judge every aspect of the event and its impact on other aspects of life before coming to an informed decision. Any act of redaction inserts some value judgment into our perceptions and we need to be aware of it. An article deemed neutral and objective is deeply subjective, especially if it is designed not to offend (which is what the Bush bio on Wikipedia seems to accomplish almost entirely).
As journalists, bloggers, citizen journalists or civic journalists, we need to acknowledge the obligation to examine our own subjectivity and point it out as frequently as possible. Having been cloaked behind a veil of professionalism and craving the spotlight of celebrity for half a century, journalism has largely forgotten that essential elements of the practice of recording events is humility and scathing self-examination.
I believe David Weinberger aspires to exactly this kind of self-aware media, but the path to it won’t lead through the poppy fields that sing “trust the reader to sort it all out” as we fall into a gentle sleep halfway to the Emerald City. We are, like it or not, still very much in Kansas.
Take a look at the history of American anti-American witch hunts. The record of the U.S. government during World War I and immediately after, when a fear of communism was sweeping the nation, was reported very differently during the McCarthy era by distinguished historians than by those same historians in the 1970s, because the current environment in which those events were interpreted had changed. The internment of German-born American citizens during World War I and Japanese during World War II is now treated as a regrettable necessity by contemporary commentators, many of whom would have condemned those events before Sept. 11, 2001.
You can see an example of this subjectivity in the historical assessments of Joe McCarthy himself, who is being lionized by the far right to prop up Bush-era policies today.
Life itself is subjective to the extent that everyone experiences it through their own senses, not a shared sensory system providing objective readings of our surroundings, and filters it through their personal history. A husband and wife arguing see things differently. A cop and a protester see things differently. The mayor and the city clerk. Billy, who hit Tommy because he called him a “booger eater,” had a different experience than Tommy, who is crying. It depends what you mean by “is.” One man’s rule is another man’s excuse. Lenny Bruce describes this perfectly in his version of the social contract story:
‘Let’s see. I tell you what we’ll do. We’ll have a vote. We’ll sleep in area A, is that cool?’ – ‘Okay, good.’ – ‘We’ll eat in area B. Good?’ – ‘Good.’ – ‘We’ll throw a crap in area C. Good?’ – ‘Good.’ Simple rules. So, everything went along pretty cool, you know, everybody’s very happy. One night everybody was sleeping, one guy woke up, Pow! He got a faceful of crap, and he said: ‘Hey, what’s the deal here, I thought we had a rule: Eat, Sleep, and Crap, and I was sleeping and I got a faceful of crap…’ So they said, ‘Well, ah, the rule was substantive -‘
A news report about the situation in the Ukraine today would be very different depending on whether the witness were standing among the Yanukovich or Yushchenko partisans. But readers need both sides of the story to understand it, and neither side is right or wrong, rather they see things differently. It’s up to the reader to decide which side they think should win the conflict over leadership of the Ukraine or if they even care.
The challenge for a reporter is to take those views and the “supporting evidence” each side provides in order to verify claims of fact. it’s something the press barely did in our election, so it’s hard to imagine it happening in coverage of the Ukrainian election crisis, either. Nevertheless, that is what reporters do when they have adequate resources and high integrity. At Correspondences.org during the past two year, where there have been about 90 contributors at most times, we have had citizen reporters take up opposite sides of stories only two or three times, because so few people have the time or wherewithal to report a story, even from their own perspective. Nevertheless, we can count on comments to inject partisan analysis into a story (the site is Movable Type-based, supporting blog comments).
This is not to argue that the blog format is better for relating the news, only to explain that the WikiNews approach may not be appropriate to sheering fact from fiction.
In a medium defined by timeliness—news, as compared to an encyclopedia article, which can be authored over months or years—collaborative editing is not likely to result in objective reports, but rather a battle of perspectives very much like the starkly partisan George W. Bush articles authors produced at Wikipedia that resulted in the editing interface being locked down. In a situation where the reader needs information quickly in order to make a judgment about events or their role in them, the collaborative approach to authoring information may be too slow.
We have a tendency in the United States these days to assume the collective opinion of the majority is the closest to correct, yet we seldom examine the differences of opinion themselves objectively. This leaves the individual faced with limited time and a desire to find some truth to decide about the sources they trust, each offering their own “neutral” and “objective” view of events. A wiki-based news source that became a “wiki of record” for events could contribute to the establishment of echo chambers just as easily as a major newspaper or television network that becomes the sole source of news for an audience.
Readers often tend to identify a few sources they trust until such time as those sources disappoint them; but they don’t review all their beliefs that were built on the representation of reality provided by the source, only what disappointed them, since people are not accustomed to deconstructing their views with any regularity.
A media that did offer different opinions in full and with extensive supporting information side-by-side with all other opinions would better prepare people for the difficult process of defining and redefining their values and opinions throughout their lives. Call it the Socratic Media, but I am sure the unexamined life is not worth living.
This begs the question, why with unlimited bandwidth and storage capacity, couldn’t multiple versions of the Bush biography (not just the history of edits and abuses by all comers) be posted with equal access and a little context on Wikipedia? This constitutes the best of the inclusive approach UBio uses, since history will ultimately judge Bush and then change it’s mind again and again and again. Multiple versions of the Bush story, say from the Bush side, the Center for Freedom and Progress (Democratic), as well as views from foreign writers that may emphasize Bush’s foreign policy decisions, could be presented in an index and a patient and interested reader would be able to digest the different views and decide for themselves. One article about Bush is the problem, not the solution to the problem of describing Bush. Thinking that an article can be finished is another problem, because we’ve entered a time when news, because of its relationship to history and the ease and rapidity of editing and publication, is never complete.
That process, though, takes time and the news cycles are fast-paced. We seldom look back at what happened last week, let alone a month ago or a year ago. Collaborative editing of a definitive story about events in this environment is nearly impossible and it would be better to offer multiple views than a refined version. If WikiNews editors acted as a peer-review committee and called out shortcomings in fact-checking or the accuracy of facts, this could be a powerful enhancement to multiple versions of events that helped the reader decide for themselves what actually happened. But reducing a report to a single version, especially based on contributions from people who were not actually there to record the event, is of questionable value.
News is expensive, which is why it has suffered under the yoke of increasingly profit-driven companies. WikiNews’ intention, to distribute the news gathering and editing process, is excellent, but the artifact produced should not be a single article, but an interface to dozens or hundreds of reports that allow the inquisitive reader to explore the many faces of events. A readership accustomed to this approach to the news may be more tolerant, more judicious and participate in the events that make news due to their increased confidence in their ability to embrace uncertainty than the modern human weaned on one or two major media sources.
MORE: Mark Glaser wants to work for a media company that is open and collaborative—an excellent complementary read to this piece. Question is, who wants to finance this? I know, having built ON24 to run on the smallest editorial budget imaginable for a 24/7 video news network, a lot of the ins and outs. There are clearly a ton of smart folks willing to participate. Who wants to put the money behind it?]]>