How Wikipedia Breaks News, and Adjusts to It

Robert Siegel talks to Jimmy Wales, founder and chairman emeritus of Wikipedia. Wales will discuss the process of "breaking news" on Wikipedia.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Yesterday, when the news of Anna Nicole Smith's collapse in a Florida hotel room hit the newswires, a colleague did something that has become a part of an ongoing media experiment around here. He checked the entry for Anna Nicole Smith in Wikipedia, the online so-called free encyclopedia. The entry already listed February 8th, 2007 as the date of her death. A little while later, the Associated Press reported her death. Wikipedia was first.

Well, who made that Wikipedia entry? And was it based on more factual knowledge than the AP had at that time or just a willingness to go out on a limb.

We're going to put those questions now to Jimmy Wales, who's the founder of Wikipedia and chairman emeritus of the Wikimedia Foundation. Welcome to the program, Mr. Wales. And let me ask you, who did make that Wikipedia entry? Or do you not know?

Mr. JIMMY WALES (Founder, Wikipedia): We don't really know who made it. But the first mention of this was citing a broadcast on CBS News.

SIEGEL: And so, someone who heard that broadcast in CBS News went straight to Wikipedia and added that fact to Anna Nicole Smith's entry.

Mr. WALES: That's right. Yeah.

SIEGEL: Can anyone do that?

Mr. WALES: Yes. Anyone can edit. It's a very open public system. We get, you know, any breaking news event, we got a lot of contributions around that.

SIEGEL: And that's a single source report at that moment that Wikipedia is acknowledging as fact. It's a slimmer basis for a confirmation than a news organization would -

Mr. WALES: I would say pretty much exactly the same confirmation that most of these organizations would report. In other words, it was a citation to what was being reported at another outlet. You know, at least in that case it was pretty good.

SIEGEL: At one point yesterday, Wikipedia, after declaring yesterday to be the date of Anna Nicole Smith's death, apparently withdrew the date of her death from the entry, but then put it back later. Well, what was going on at that point? What might have been going on?

Mr. WALES: Right. Well, what normally happens in a case like that is that different editors are coming to the page with different sensibilities about what would be required to have something be confirmed. And so, if they were not satisfied with the sourcing, someone might revert back to a previous version, saying, wait we need to get confirmation and some source that we can all collectively check out and verify.

SIEGEL: But is that a hierarchy of editors who are charged with that responsibility at that moment?

Mr. WALES: Not really. I mean for editing purposes, everyone is treated equally. Although there is, of course, some social hierarchy of trusted editors who know each other and rely on each other.

SIEGEL: But when you speak of editors who trust and know each other, we're talking about members of an online community. We're not talking about people who are elbow to elbow somewhere in a room.

Mr. WALES: Oh, yeah. Exactly. Yeah. No. These are people distributed all over the world who have typically met each other online, but a lot of people do know each other offline as well.

SIEGEL: Well, was there some particular moment, or would there typically be some particular moment when Wikipedia decides that now, as a matter of fact, not as a report that may nor may not be amply confirmed, but as a matter of fact, someone has died. Is there some policy regarding that?

Mr. WALES: Well, the policy around that would be the same as the policies that generally cover biographies. And so, there's many, many pages of policy that the community has written to govern standards relating to sourcing for biographies of living people. And this would be one type of event in that category.

SIEGEL: As I understand it, there was a point at which the access of readers, users of Wikipedia to go in and edit the entry - the access became limited at some point.

Mr. WALES: Yeah. That's something that we've always done very routinely, when an article gets a lot of news attention, a lot of new people come in and maybe think it's funny to mess around with the article. So we'll semi-protect it, so that only experienced editors can edit it for a while.

SIEGEL: And what's an experienced editor?

Mr. WALES: In this particular context, it would be anyone who has had an account for more than four days. So it's a very low threshold to entry, but we've discovered that that's enough to prevent random people who just heard the news story popping in and doing something ridiculous. If someone has been around for at least four days and not gotten blocked, they're probably not a completely ridiculous person.

SIEGEL: That's kind of ruling out the impulsive graffiti that someone might add to an entry.

Mr. WALES: Exactly my point.

SIEGEL: But as you say, a rather low bar for qualifying as an experienced editor.

Mr. WALES: That's right. Yeah.

SIEGEL: Well, Mr. Wales, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. WALES: Okay. Thank you.

SIEGEL: Jimmy Wales spoke to us from San Mateo, California. He's the founder of Wikipedia and the chairman emeritus of the Wikimedia Foundation.

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