Last week, journalist David Rohde escaped after a seven-month kidnap by the Taliban. It’s fabulous news, and it’s been partly attributed to the fact that The New York Times suppressed it in the first place. But today we learn that Wikipedia did so too.
That raises a couple of very interesting questions. The New York Times worked very hard to keep facts about Rohde’s kidnapping out of the media, with the intention of denying the Taliban the media coverage it desired and thus helping Rohde’s chances of release or escape. The technique obviously paid off in this case, and it’s certainly been done before.
But in a Times piece yesterday, the paper also made it clear that it had the help of Wikipedia staffers who suppressed the news popping up there too. Since Wikipedia is crowd-sourced and openly editable, the news did manage to arrive on the online encyclopedia several times, whereupon it was quickly erased and sometimes the offending page was frozen to prevent any further user-editing. Rohde’s own Wikipedia entry was even edited by a colleague immediately after his kidnap to enhance the Islam-friendliness of Rohde’s previous journalistic work.
This information dance on Wikipedia all happened with the specific help of the site’s founder, Jimmy Wales. But while commenting on the moral angle of the Wikipedia tampering, Wales noted: “We were really helped by the fact that it hadn’t appeared in a place we would regard as a reliable source…I would have had a really hard time with it if it had.” And that’s where this story gets interesting to people who believe in freedom of information: In essence The New York Times suppressed the info themselves, and by influencing other old media outlets, which then enabled the new media outlet of Wikipedia to feel okay about continuing the propagandizing.
It’s a journalistic moral ouroboros, for sure, and it raises a couple of questions. Did Wikipedia damage its reputation as a crowd-based and open-access information source? The answer is yes, a little (and it’s not the first time Wikipedia’s admins have been caught manipulating entries). Wikipedia isn’t a traditional media outlet, and therefore has no hard or soft journalistic moral code to abide by, which means it can be more flexible in its actions–and the fact a life was at stake here is a mitigating fact. But Wales’ excuse still sounds particularly weak. As a result, the next questions about Wikipedia are: What other news pieces is it hiding? And will users trust in the site as a news source take a hit?
[via The New York Times]