The Aardvark Speaks : essence, effervescence, obscurity. Established 2002. A weblog by Horst Prillinger. ISSN 1726-5320

March 15, 2005

The Scandal

Last week (I think) there was this huge scandal that caused quite a hoopla in the German blogosphere — basically what had happened was that Der Spiegel Online had published an article on the genocide in Rwanda that was largely copied from the German Wikipedia without naming the source. Der Spiegel eventually removed the article and printed an apology, and the German Wikipedia and weblog community rejoiced. It has taken me a while to respond to this, mostly because I've had more important things to do and criticising the Wikipedia is always like opening a can of rabid worms, but the debate that followed was just too hypocritical not to warrant a belated response.

First, there is no doubt that Der Spiegel made a mistake. What they did is incompatible with journalism, in fact incompatible with serious writing of any kind. There is a basic difference between using sources and copying sources, there is a difference between known reliable sources, known unreliable sources and sources of unknown reliability, and finally, there is a difference between naming your sources and pretending that you did not use any sources.

It's perfectly okay if a journalist uses known reliable sources and credits them. It's okay if a journalist uses a known unreliable source or a source of unknown reliability if s/he points out that the source may be unreliable. For things that are considered common knowledge it's the norm (though slightly less okay) that sources are used, but not credited. What should not happen is that sources are copied and not credited. What should not happen at all is that sources that are known to be unreliable are copied and not credited.

In the case of the copied Wikipedia article I don't know which of the two aspects is more embarrassing for Der Spiegel: the fact that the article was copied from Wikipedia or the fact that it was copied from Wikipedia, or, in other words: is it worse that the "journalist" in question did not know how to use sources properly or that he did not know to use proper sources?

And then the hypocrisy. Of course what's happening at the moment in the weblogs vs. journalism debate is something like a palace revolution. There's a huge number of people out there who are (rightly) dissatisfied with the established media and are only waiting for new media developments like weblogs to take over — a development that I hinted at in my BlogTalk paper last year. And since the established media are not responding with more professionalism, but instead resort to an increasing degree to copy-and-paste publishing, that may very well happen soon enough.

In my paper, I argued that weblogs are not journalism. Most of them still are not. But oddly enough what the established media are publishing now also less and less qualifies as journalism. In fact, the whole Spiegel Online thing qualifies only as one massive embarrassment. Still, it would be wrong to conclude that simply because the established media are becoming less professional, weblogs are becoming journalism. It still takes more than a WordPress or Movable Type installation (or a job at one of the established media, for that matter) to be a journalist.

Still, the hypocrisy. It's understandable, because hundreds of bloggers have been eagerly waiting for one of the established media to make a proper fool of itself to point out just how much the established media have become dead meat, but while they're right about that, they are acting as if Wikipedia was totally free of articles copied from other sources without attribution.

Which sounds just too good to be true, especially, as I pointed out elsewhere, it is sometimes not even possible. So it's good fun to see the Wikipedia community suddenly claim ownership of things that can hardly be owned and Der Spiegel being unprofessional enough to actually give them a point. In the meantime, real journalism probably happens elsewhere. Just don't ask me where.

Posted by Horst on March 15, 2005 06:39 PM to metablogging | Tell-a-friend

Ulf said on March 15, 2005 10:26 PM:

»Just don't ask me where.« — This is the saddest aspect of your story. The race to be the quickest to point to any current topic – be it within the blogging community or be it within classic media – leads to uncontrollable and uncheckable correctness on either side. This is the time for paper media to gain back importance. Personally, I don't rely any more on anything displayed on a computer screen. Longing for information, we're drowning in info-trash.

dieter said on March 16, 2005 09:44 AM:

Yeah, let's get back to paper - or something that has one crucial point in common with paper: You can refer to it, and when discussion comes up, you can be sure that the passage you quoted is still there.

Josh Cogliati said on March 22, 2005 04:01 AM:

I agree with dieter, we should get back to paper, and things that have the crucial point in common with paper: You can refer to it, and when discussion comes up, you can be sure that the passage you quote is still there, like Wikipedia's history pages :)

Josh Cogliati said on March 22, 2005 04:23 AM:

For example, on Wikipedia, we can see if the article Uncertainty Principle had any references on Oct 5, 2004

Horst said on March 22, 2005 10:39 AM:

I don't care whether journalists publish on paper or electronically (well, mostly I don't care because paper is somewhat more reliable in case of a power failure, but then electronic publications can be distributed faster), I care whether they produce quality journalism or junk.

Josh Cogliati said on March 22, 2005 02:48 PM:

I agree that journalism is often annoyingly low quality. For example (and I just picked the top story in science at the BBC) the BBC and many other news organizations often report about new science without mentioning at minimum the title, author, journal and date for the research they are reporting on ( Example) Off the top of my head, Wikinews (yes, by the same group that runs Wikipedia) is the only news organization that has a policy to always cite your sources. Of course, they are almost required to by the nature of a wiki. Now, if professional news organizations always did put out quality journalism, then such a policy on their part is probably not required, but that occasionally seems not to be the case (for example, in the case mentioned in Horst's article).

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