Retired journalist complains about false biography
Misinformation in Wikipedia became a hot topic again last week when a retired journalist publicized his complaints about an article. The incident prompted considerable discussion in the media generally and among Wikipedia editors specifically, while renewing discussion of measures to address such problems.
On Tuesday, USA Today published a column by its former editorial page editor, John Seigenthaler Sr., who told of finding "A false Wikipedia 'biography'", specifically his own. The piece recounted his efforts to have the falsehoods removed and his inability to trace the person responsible.
What happened with the article
The text Seigenthaler complained about was originally posted 26 May 2005. It indicated that he had "briefly" been suspected of involvement in the assassinations of both John and Robert Kennedy, adding the caveat, "Nothing was ever proven." Aside from a spelling correction three days later, it was left unedited for months.
As Wikipedia logs are purged regularly, it is no longer possible to determine how many people viewed the article in this state. An attempt to reconstruct the number of inbound links showed that it had very few before this publicity; aside from the John Seigenthaler disambiguation page, Robert F. Kennedy included him as one of Kennedy's pallbearers, and Freedom Riders mentioned him as Kennedy's assistant. A newspaper he published, The Tennessean, mentioned him but without a link, and Profiles in Courage Award, for which he serves on the committee, mentioned him but linked to the John Seigenthaler page without distinguishing him from his son.
The article was next changed on September 23, again from an IP address. This replaced the contents entirely with a more substantial biography. The editor included an edit summary stating, "This is the correct bio. The previous entry was bogus." However, this proved to be a copy of Seigenthaler's biography on the website of the First Amendment Center, an organization he founded. The next day, Chick Bowen rewrote the material to address the potential copyright problem.
Seigenthaler indicated that he contacted Jimmy Wales about the article after discovering it. Wales, being unsure of the technical process to delete only certain revisions, asked on IRC for someone to handle it. In response, on October 7 Essjay deleted revisions containing both the original false biography and the copied biography. The current history of the article now begins with Chick Bowen's edits.
Meanwhile, Seigenthaler said he was unable to trace the original author. With Wales' help, the IP address used was traced to BellSouth Internet, but they declined to provide any more information without a subpoena, and Seigenthaler opted not to pursue a lawsuit. Instead he criticized the system that allowed such material to be disseminated online with no consequences for the author. As he discovered, the offending text spread to a number of Wikipedia mirrors, notably Answers.com and Reference.com.
Metaphors and reactions
Seigenthaler closed with his metaphor for Wikipedia, citing his mother lecturing him about gossip with the image of a feather pillow, the contents of which could not be reassembled if the pillow was torn open. Considered against other metaphors used by Wikipedia critics, notably Robert McHenry's public toilet, the feather pillow seems much more tame.
The response on Wikipedia included considerable discussion of what should be done to prevent problematic content of this nature from lingering in articles. Proposed measures included increased emphasis on citing sources, along with various ideas about improved ways of screening content. The John Seigenthaler Sr. article itself, which had again gone untouched since Chick Bowen edited it, suddenly became the focus of sustained editing and has expanded considerably, including some discussion of this particular episode.
Seigenthaler's column was also reprinted or discussed in a number of other places. The story was covered on Sunday in The New York Times by Katharine Seelye, in an article entitled "Snared in the Web of a Wikipedia Liar". Seelye spoke with Jimmy Wales and reported on possible responses, including the planned article rating feature and the possibility of preventing editors from creating pages unless they are logged in (see related story). Besides interviewing Wales, Seelye also quoted several people involved in researching the news, an indication of the extent to which Wikipedia has become part of newsroom practices.
Media coverage will likely continue, as Wales and Seigenthaler are both set to appear on CNN to discuss the incident on Monday, December 5. Wales was careful to emphasize that he respects Seigenthaler and understood his position, saying "we are on the same side, not in opposition."