More musing about news: wikinews

Following on from comments on my last post, and at least in some part influenced by what I’d had bouncing around my head when I wrote this in 2006 (to do with Gresham’s Law and information), I’d like to spend a little time thinking about news as a commons, its damage and its repair.

If we consider news to be a commons, then, taking a leaf out of Clay Shirky’s book, we could think of news publishing tools and techniques slightly differently. We could think of them as ways to damage the news commons, and to repair the news commons.

What damages the news commons? Lies, inaccuracies, errors, omissions. How can we make sure that the news commons suffers the least damage? By ensuring, in turn, that the cost of repairing the news commons is at least as low as the cost of damaging the news commons.

Shirky made this point in the context of wikis originally, but I think it has merit in the context of news and the dissemination of news. Which leads me to thinking this way: if the tools and techniques used to disseminate news are such that the cost of repair is as low as the cost of damage, then the quality of the news disseminated will improve.

In other words, the cost of stopping a lie from spreading must be as low as the cost of spreading the lie in the first place; the cost of publishing a corrected text must be as low as the cost of publishing the error-strewn text in the first place.

Dave Winer, some years ago, regularly used the phrase “River of News”, usually in the context of RSS, if memory serves me right. Tools like Twitter, when used with techniques like snurl, already provide rivers of news, but usually in the context of the news publisher rather than the news topics. Search tools like Summize then convert that into topic-based tributaries. But by definition these are streams of information without the notion of damage or correction.

So what would happen if we had wiki-based newspapers? I’ve seen cursory attempts; I think there’s a lot more to come. Am I right in thinking that MSM tools and techniques are fundamentally asymmetrical in this respect, the cost of repair is far higher than the cost of damage, so damage increases over time.

Why would I say this? Two reasons. One, errata, error and omission correction, retractions. These things tend to be tucked in somewhere in the bowels of a paper, while the actual errors and omissions make the premium slots. Two, if you take something like the manuals and policy handbooks in most organisations, the reason they never get used is they’re usually out of date. And why are they out of date? Because the ‘cost of repair” is too high.

The manuals and guides and policy handbooks migrated into wiki space. In a wiki, there’s no place to hide the error or the correction.

So is it time for wikinews? Where does it exist already? Where does it work well, where does it fall down?


11 thoughts on “More musing about news: wikinews”

  1. The one problem with wikinews in this manner would be libel – if you’re aggregating sources like Digg, for example, you escape this because the material is on another site.

    If you’re hosting a news wiki, however, and news is at such a pace it’s hard to have someone competent to check it, you’re far more likely to mistakenly or purposefully libel someone and be unable to rectify it until the writs are already flying.

    Wikipedia seems to escape this by being more of a reference work, and responding to complaints in a timely fashion, as do most sites – but an entire news wiki would need a big team to manage it – and they’d need to be highly trained because even most journalists can struggle with the intricacies of libel law (myself included sometimes!).

    Plus there are the problems of getting an unbiased news report by contacting the ‘other side’ of the article. Published news almost always gives the subject in question the chance to respond for clarity – blogs and UGC tends to be a more one-sided approach to an issues without any contact of the company in question, leading to far more errors.

    Those two problems mean that the cost of repair is far more than the time and effort of simply updating content, and becomes prohibitive unless you’re managing and training submissions. OhMyNews is the oft-quoted example of UGC journalism working, so I need to refresh myself into their measures to stop legal proceedings occurring!

  2. It seems to me that we still get most of our real reporting from the MSM, and blogs provide commentary, analysis, and factchecking. How does wikinews fit into that?

  3. The news that is factual and not based on opinions and emotions probably has some way of succeeding in this wiki like enterprise. Things like natural catastrophes, obituaries, announcements and such can find a place in such a media with people just editing and adding to the stories.

    The space that I see a lot of problems coming in are where nationalist, religious or political – where peoples emotions make something news. Take for instance the Irish problem – what to England is true maynot be so for the Irish and vice-versa. A wiki would only allow people to keep deleting and distorting with no end in sight.

    Interesting thoughts though. Might be interesting to observe if someone does build upon this.

  4. Alanna, good to see you back here. What I was imagining was something the *speed* of Twitter, with the *anyone-can-edit* capability of wikis, tagged and categorised and laid out topically.

    MSM is about a specific collection of processes, technologies and values that militate against the speed and the anyone-can-edit capacity.

  5. Bev, I agree with you in principle. I didn’t go down that route because my starting point is different….I think of news as distinct and separate from opinion.

  6. I’m not sure of the value of news without opinion. MSM reports basic facts but also adds the reasons for various actions and I would count that as opinion – although distinct from ideological-based opinion.

    If you limit the function to the dissemination of facts, then a wiki might be marginally quicker than MSM as we have seen via Twitter and blogs in relation to major incidents – (though that has speeded up with the advent of 24 hour news and online outlets) . But ultimately are they more accurate? Initial reports in whatever medium always tend to be inaccurate and away from the “disciplines” of MSM I think they do tend to be more alarmist/hyperbole. How would your wiki idea avoid that?

  7. John, I think there are three issues here.

    One is the facility to write. If a publishing tool (and here I consider MSM to be a publishing tool) has low or nonexistent barriers to entry, then the capacity for alarm and hyperbole is enhanced. That’s what happens in some bulletin boards and, to a lesser extent, in Twitter.

    The second is the facility to edit. Bulletin boards don’t have edit facilities, they’re based on a YOYOW principle, and therefore there is neither mechanism nor incentive to correct and repair. Wiki-style publishing mechanisms have the many-can-edit facility.

    These two things then tie up with a third, the sheer number of “reporters”. MSM is restricted in this respect, in comparison with the number of people who may edit a wiki.

    All wiki-like communal efforts need their 1000lb gorillas, their core, their moderators, the super-editors as it were.

    But the wikinews model is just more likely to scale: more reporters, faster collection, faster correction, quicker dissemination.

  8. I’ve been interested in filtering, rather than aggregation fora long time, imho the “River of News” typically degenerates into a “Sewer of Cr*p” because there is (i) too much and (ii) the S/N ratio is often too low

    Re news commons – ever since the United Airlines debacle I’ve started to get very interested in how to get “trust” registered on a source – eg if it was clear that the dateline was Googlestamped, not original.

  9. As an ex PR hack, I’d say the biggest problem with news is the ‘error of omission’ – that which gets left out is actually usually the post important to the punter.

    Wiki’s, sadly, don’t help much with that, since you need someone who:

    a) Knows the missing facts.

    b) Is prepared to take the trouble/risk of pointing them out.

    That said, these days I get very frustrated when I read a news story and can’t add to it. Also frustrating when there are a thousand comments – to Alan’s S/N comment.

    Truth is a tricky thing to get too, and I feel bereft of answers as to better ways pursue it. Trust comes in to it, but trust is a tricky thing, even in this hyperconnected age.

  10. Hi, JP. I’m spearheading a project at the new Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri to argue that it is, in fact, time for wikinews. Sort of. You can read my research and conclusions as I go along at

  11. Ben, did you ever see the Idiot’s Guide to Comments as reported in the Onion? Brilliant. Search for “onion” at this blog and you’ll find it.

    Matt, thanks for the info, I will read it with interest.

    And thanks for your comments, everyone.

Let me know what you think

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.