Seigenthaler and Wikipedia
A Case Study on the Veracity of the "Wiki" concept
In May, a Nashville man posted a biography of retired journalist John L. Seigenthaler Sr. on Wikipedia, the user-created and edited online encyclopedia. The orginally anonymous posting included several fabricated statements, including that Seigenthaler was once thought to be involved in the assassination of John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy, and that he had lived in the Soviet Union for 13 years. In fact, the brief bio contained only one factual sentence, Seigenthaler was administrative assistant to Robert Kennedy in the early 1960s.
Despite the inaccuracies, the entry was not detected until September, when Seigenthaler learned of it and had it taken down.
Seigenthaler, a member of the Committee of Concerned Journalists Steering Committee, outlined what happened to him in an account in USA Today. That inspired press coverage and has led to broad discussion on the Internet about the rules and virtues of Wikipedia, and, by extension, the notion fact and accuracy in virtual citizen debate online.
In the wake of the controversy, the original author of the fake bio came forward in mid-December and admitted to posting the bio as a prank meant to shock a colleague. Brian Chase said he believed nobody took Wikipedia seriously. Seigenthaler decided not to pursue legal action against Chase and urged the man's employer to rehire him (Chase quit because he did not want to involve the company he worked for).
The case outlined in this report includes a longer piece by Seigenthaler himself that appeared in USA today; media coverage of the episode; other journalism experiments with wikis; explanations on how Wikipedia works and what went wrong; a timeline of the incident.
The case raises some interesting questions. What does the controversy say about the Web as a platform for information delivery? What does it say about Wikipedia itself? What lessons can journalists take away from the episode?
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