Wikipedia:Wikipedia Signpost/2007-04-02/Errors and publicity

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The Wikipedia Signpost


Wikipedia biographical errors attract more attention

By Michael Snow, 2 April, 2007

Problems with a biography put Jimmy Wales in a difficult position during a recent media appearance, in another case of publicity for Wikipedia errors. Wikipedia also became caught up in an ongoing British-Zimbabwean diplomatic squabble, although its role in this incident was more muddled. Both events served to illustrate the challenges of maintaining accurate information about living persons in the encyclopedia.

In a post to the English Wikipedia mailing list, Wales complained of "getting hammered" in an interview with Ellen Fanning, an Australian television host. Fanning pointed out a mistake in her own biography, which erroneously identified her as the sister of musician Bernard Fanning.

Although the information did not cast Fanning (either of them, really) in a negative light, Wales pointed out that it was still not positive for Wikipedia. A lengthy discussion ensued about the incident's implications and how to address them. Stan Shebs highlighted the curious point that media personalities so often complain about the articles on themselves, rather than criticizing inaccuracies elsewhere.

Meanwhile, British Foreign Office minister Ian McCartney was caught in a public misstatement, partly on account of misinformation in Wikipedia. The incident arose because of long-running diplomatic issues with the nation of Zimbabwe, including a European Union ban on travel by Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe and some of his family. In a House of Commons debate, MP James Duddridge asked McCartney about a report that Mugabe's daughter was studying at the London School of Economics, which McCartney confirmed, prompting also a suggestion that the ban should be extended to her.

The Foreign Office subsequently indicated that McCartney had misrecollected a briefing. The same claim had been present in the Wikipedia article on Mugabe from 4 November 2006 to 15 March 2007. It was added by an unregistered user, ostensibly citing the school's student directory as a source. The school has denied that she ever attended or was listed in the directory, and an IP address assigned to the school was used to remove the claim. Duddridge was apparently aware that the information had been both added and removed from Wikipedia, while having also received a separate report making this claim through a newspaper.

The case prompted some debate about whether existing policies are adequate to deal with the problems demonstrated. As Dan Tobias observed, "this is the sort of thing that can easily survive a superficial look, even under a regime requiring strict sourcing of negative information on living persons."

Wales indicated that even if it had been accurate, the change would have violated the prohibition on original research: "This was in no way an appropriate external source." Some pointed to the distinction between primary and secondary sources, with the latter being important to demonstrate that a particular fact warrants mentioning in an encyclopedia. Others defended the usefulness of primary sources, tying the problem instead to the dishonesty involved in misrepresenting the contents of a source.

Also this week: Poll

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