From Anarchy to Wikiality, Glaring Bias to Good Cop: Press Coverage of Wikipedia’s First Two Decades
Image credit: David Wilson, North Blvd. & Home Ave., 1998.
“Jimmy Wales has been shot dead, according to Wikipedia, the online, up-to-the-minute encyclopedia.” That was the opening line of a blatantly false 2005 news report by the online magazine The Registrar. Rather than being an early example of what we may today call “fake news,” the report by the tech magazine was a consciously snarky yet prescient criticism of Wikipedia and its reliability as a source for media. Though Wales was more than alive and had faced no threat to his life whatsoever, the report’s “death by attribution” sought to call out a perceived flaw in Wikipedia’s model that made it seemingly incompatible with the spirit of journalism: On Wikipedia, truth was fluid and, devoid of accountability, susceptible to manipulations by anonymous vandals and conspirators.
Over the past twenty years, Wikipedia has frequently been the subject of media coverage, from in-depth exposés to colorful features and critical Op-Eds. But if you randomly sample the words used to describe Wikipedia from the headlines in this period, you might conclude that the press has no idea what it thinks about the free internet encyclopedia. Should we refer to it as “The Hive” (The Atlantic, 2006) or the “Good Cop” of the Internet (The Washington Post, 2018)? Is Wikipedia “Impolite” (The New York Times, 2007) or a “Ray of Light” (The Guardian, 2018)? Is there a logical progression to how the press has described Wikipedia over the past two decades, or does seemingly every reporter possess a dramatically different opinion?
The following paper is an attempt to trace Wikipedia’s complex relationship with the media. We argue that in the almost 20 years that have passed since it was launched, coverage of Wikipedia has undergone a radical shift: Initially cast as the symbol of intellectual frivolity in the digital age, it is now being lauded as the “last bastion of shared reality” in Trump’s America.3 Coverage, we claim, has evolved from bewilderment at the project, to concern and hostility at its model, to acceptance of its merits and disappointment at its shortcomings, and finally to calls to hold it socially accountable and reform it like any other institution.
We argue that press coverage of Wikipedia can be roughly divided into four periods. We have named each period after a major theme: “Authorial Anarchy” (2001-2004/5); “Wikiality” (2005-2008); “Bias” (2011-2017); and “Good Cop” (2018-~). We note upfront that these categories are not rigid and that themes and trends from one period can and often do carry over into others. But the overall progression reveals how the dynamic relationship between Wikipedia and the press has changed since its inception, and might provide further insight into how the press and Wikipedia will continue to interact with each other in the internet’s knowledge ecosystem.
In conclusion, we argue for what we term “wiki journalism” and the need for media to play a larger role in improving the general public’s “Wikipedia literacy.” With the help of the Wikimedia Foundation and the Wikipedia community, the press, we claim, can play a more substantial role in explaining Wikipedia to the public and serving as a civilian watchdog for the online encyclopedia. Encouraging critical readership of Wikipedia and helping to increase diversity among its editorship will ensure greater public oversight over the digital age’s preeminent source of knowledge.
Authorial anarchy (2001 - 2004/5)
When Wikipedia was launched in 2001, mainstream media as well as more technology minded outlets treated it as a something between a fluke and quirky outlier. With quotes from co-founders Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger, early coverage tended to focus on what seemed like Wikipedia's most novel aspects: how it is written by anyone, edited collaboratively, is free to access and, in the case of tech media, extends the culture of open software development to the realm of encyclopedias.
“Anyone who visits the site is encouraged to participate,”4 the New York Times [NYT] wrote in its first piece on Wikipedia, titled “Fact-Driven? Collegial? This Site Wants You.” Reports like these laid out the basic tenets of Wikipedia, focusing on how collaborative technology and the volunteer community regulated what the Grey Lady termed “authorial anarchy.”5 Many of these reports included a colorful lede (“What does Nicole Kidman have in common with Kurt Godel?” Hint: Both have Wikipedia articles) showcasing the quirky diversity of content on the new site, where “[y]ou don’t even have to give your real name” to contribute.
Despite Wales’ lofty claims that Wikipedia was creating a world in which everyone could have “free access to the sum of all human knowledge,”6 throughout the early 2000s, mainstream media remained skeptical towards Wikipedia, with reports from 2002-2003 mostly documenting with some surprise its rapid growth in scale and scope, as well as its expansion into other languages. MIT Technology Review ran a report called “Free the Encyclopedias!”, which described Wikipedia as “a free-wheeling Internet-based encyclopedia whose founders hope will revolutionize the stodgy world of encyclopedias” - then still dominated by the Enlightenment era Britannica and it’s more digital savvy competitor Encarta.
Repeated comparison to Encarta and Britannica is perhaps the most interesting characteristic of early media coverage, one that will disappear in later stages as Wikipedia cements its status as a legitimate encyclopedia. The MIT Technology Review for example described Wikipedia as “intellectual anarchy extruded into encyclopedia form” and unironically claimed that it “will probably never dethrone Britannica, whose 232-year reputation is based upon hiring world-renowned experts and exhaustively reviewing their articles with a staff of more than a hundred editors.”7 Three years later, in 2004, The Washington Post noted in its first exposé on Wikipedia that Britannica’s staff was now down to a mere 20 editors.8 A year prior, the paper brushed off Wikipedia almost entirely and instead focused on CD-ROM encyclopedias - all the rage since Encarta launched a decade earlier, mounting what seemed at the time to be the bigger threat towards Britanica.9 Within a year the newspaper’s take on Wikipedia would change dramatically, and it was now concerned by the long term effect of Wikipedia's success, suggesting “the Internet's free dissemination of knowledge will eventually decrease the economic value of information.”10
At the end of 2005, this tension between the English encyclopedia of the Enlightenment and that of the digital age would reach its zenith in a now infamous Nature news study that compared Wikipedia and Britannica. Published in December of 2005, Nature’s “Internet encyclopaedias go head to head”11 found Wikipedia to be as accurate as its Enlightenment-era competitor, bringing experts to compare randomly selected articles on scientific topics. News that Wikipedia successfully passed scientific scrutiny - that its ever-changing content was deemed to be as reliable as the static entries of a vaunted print-era encyclopedia like Britannica - made headlines around the world.12 The Nature study was the final stage in a process that peaked in 2005 and cemented Wikipedia’s shift from a web novelty whose value was to be treated skeptically at best to a cultural force to be reckoned with.
In March of 2005, Wikipedia had crossed the half a million article mark and some intellectuals had began to discuss the “the Wikification of Knowledge.”13 Wales, increasingly an internet celebrity, took his pitch about how “a ragtag band of volunteers” were revolutionizing encyclopedias to TED. In the widely popular talk, titled “The Birth of Wikipedia,” Wales failed to reference Sanger, who had left the project in 2002. In the early days Sanger was a leading voice that spoke to the internet community from which Wikipedia’s first volunteers were enlisted, penning guest blog posts as part of early outreach efforts. However, as the TED Talk of 2005 symbolizes, Wikipedia was now mainstream and no longer aiming at early internet adopters, but rather the general public—and Wales had taken on the role of pubic face of the project.
Tellingly, 2005 was also this year that the Wikipedia community first began recording its coverage in the media in an organized fashion. Initially focused on instances of “Wiki love” from the press, the community created categories in 2005 like “America's Top Newspapers Use Wikipedia” for its early press clippings. The Signpost, the online newspaper for the English language Wikipedia, was also founded in 2005 to report on events related to Wikipedia. Over time the community grew increasingly conscious of its public role and by 2006 an organized index concentrating all of references to Wikipedia’s was set up, first a list for every year, then by month as well as coverage swelled. Categories were also created for times when Wikipedia was cited as a source of information by mainstream media, a rare reversal of roles that served to highlight the mutually dependent relationship between Wikipedia and the media that would develop over later periods.
Indeed, 2005 was to be a key year for Wikipedia: it saw its biggest vindication - the Nature report - alongside its biggest vilification - the so-called Seigenthaler affair. A journalist and friend of U.S. President John F Kennedy, John Seigenthaler’s Wikipedia article falsely accused of him playing a role in the president and his brother’s assassinations. The error - introduced by an anonymous editor - was eventually erased by Wales himself, but it was online for a number of months, garnering a number of negative headlines for the open encyclopedia and its collaborative model.14 The author of the Nature paper even made note of addressing the “Wikipedia Seigenthaler biography incident,” observing that in his view “such high-profile examples are the exception rather than the rule." The fallout even caused Wikipedia to reform its policy on the biographies of living people,15 arguably the first example of successful media-driven public pressure on the community-run encyclopedia.
By 2005, Wikipedia was no longer quirky.16 Now it was to be viewed within a new framework which contrasted its popularity with its accuracy and debated the risks it posed.17 The New York Times, for example, claimed that the Seigenthaler “case triggered extensive debate on the Internet over the value and reliability of Wikipedia, and more broadly, over the nature of online information.”18 In the next phase, Wikipedia’s effect on the popular understanding of truth that would be the overriding theme.
Stephen Colbert launched The Colbert Report with a special segment dedicated to what would be dubbed 2005’s word of the year: Truthiness. “We're not talking about truth, we're talking about something that seems like truth – the truth we want to exist,” Colbert explained. He even urged viewers to “save” the declining populations of elephants in Africa by changing their numbers on Wikipedia, causing its server to crash. The wider point resonated.19 "It’s on Wikipedia, so it must be true," the Washington Post wrote that year.20
Colbert later directly named Wikipedia as the exemplar of the term, following up his infamous segment with another neologism: wikiality. “Wikiality,” he charged, was the reality exemplified by Wikipedia’s model in which “truth” was based on the will of the majority and not on facts. This was a theme that peaked in 2005 and 2006, but was omnipresent when Wikipedia launched in 2001, and “Populist editing” was described as one of the year’s “big ideas.” Wikipedia, it seemed, was the philosophical manifestation of truthiness. “Who is Britannica to tell me that George Washington had slaves? If I want to say he didn't, that's my right,” Colbert said. “Thanks to Wikipedia, it's also a fact. [We’re] bringing democracy to knowledge.”
During 2006-2009, the dominance of Wikipedia’s encyclopedic model was solidified. The New York Times published a 2008 “eulogy” for print encyclopedias21 and flagged the need to understand the epistemology of “Wikitruth.” Wikipedia’s underlying philosophy was now deserving of more serious—and critical—examination. The MIT Technology Review ran a piece on “Wikipedia and the Meaning of Truth” asking “why the online encyclopedia epistemology should worry those who care about traditional notions of accuracy.”22 These in-depth features permitted a more detailed treatment of Wikipedia’s inner workings,23 and articles like Marshal Poe’s “The Hive” (The Atlantic, 2006) laid out for intellectual readers Wikipedia’s history and philosophy like never before.
Concerns that Wikipedia’s epistemic model was replacing expertise loomed large: In 2006, the New York Times debated “the Masses vs. Authority of Experts” and The Independent asked, “Do we need a more reliable online encyclopedia than Wikipedia?”24 The New Yorker asked “Can Wikipedia conquer expertise?” in a report that profiled Wikipedians. Larry Sanger, who had quit the project, lamented “the fate of expertise after Wikipedia.”25
Epistemological and social fears of Wikipedia were also fueled by Wikipedia’s biggest public media storm to date - the so-called Essjay scandal of 2007, in which a prolific Wikipedia editor profiled in the aforementioned New Yorker feature was revealed to be a fraud. The user Essjay claimed to be a professor of theology but turned out to be a 24-year-old college dropout, Ryan Jordan.26 Jordan’s outing prompted a rare correction from the New Yorker, numerous negative headlines,27 and even spurred calls to reform Wikipedia.28 The fact that Jordan held arbitrator status within Wikipedia’s community seemed to resonate with the overriding political theme of the day: facts were being manipulated by non-experts.
During 2004 and 2005, Wikipedia dealt with a number of media storms regarding errors in its political content, notably the pages of George W. Bush and John Kerry during the 2004 presidential election that continued through the contested recount and Bush’s second term.29 The entirety of Capitol Hill was banned from editing Wikipedia anonymously in 2006 after articles for politicians were whitewashed by what the WP described in its coverage as “wikipolitics.” During this period Wikipedia also first faced allegation of having a liberal bias - for example by “evangelical Christians” who opened conservative wiki of their own.30 Reports like these helped to politicize knowledge like never before.
The politicization of knowledge, alongside a proliferation of alternative wikis - exacerbated in part by Wales’ Wikia, launched in 2006 - all served to highlight the wikiality of politics and media.31 The first cases of “citogenesis” - circular and false reporting originating in Wikipedia - showed how errors on Wikipedia were being parroted out and that as a result media was vulnerable to political vandals. This included an unfounded claim regarding Hillary Clinton being the valedictorian of her class at Wellesley College, an error born from false information introduced to her Wikipedia article. Edit wars on George W. Bush’s Wikipedia page highlighted the online encyclopedia’s role in what the New York Times termed "separate realities" within America.32
By 2007, Wikipedia was among the top ten most popular websites in the world.33 And though it was a non-profit, it maintained partnerships with corporate juggernauts like Google, whose donations and usage of Wikipedia helped it walk among giants, giving it a privileged position on the search engine results and sparking concerns of a “Googlepedia” by internet thinkers. Wikipedia was now a primary source of knowledge for the information age, and its internal workings mattered to the general public. Coverage shifted in accordance: Reports began to focus on the internal intellectual battles raging within the community between “deletionists” and “inclusionists”34 over Wikipedia’s underlying philosophy. For the first time, coverage of Wikipedia was no longer monolithic and the community was permitted diverging opinions by the press, less a unified publisher and more a diverse community. Policy changes were debated in the media,35 and concerns over Wikipedia’s “declining user based” were also covered.36 Wikipedia was here, its worldview fully embedded within our social and political reality. The question was what was it telling us, who was writing it and who was being excluded.
Bias (2011 - 2017)
In February 2011, the New York Times ran a series of articles on the question “Where Are the Women of Wikipedia?” in its Opinion Pages. These 2011 articles have very different headlines than the paper’s coverage of Wikipedia in the prior decade, which often focused on explaining Wikipedia’s operating model to the public.37 Reporting between roughly the years 2006 to 2009 focused on Wikipedia’s reliability, with headlines like “Growing Wikipedia Refines its ‘Anyone Can Edit’ Possibility” (2006)38 and “The Epistemology of Wikipedia. Without a source, Wikipedia can’t handle the truth” (2008).39
By 2011, however, the press coverage had zeroed in on the site’s gender imbalance. Headlines in the New York Times debate series were much more openly critical of the community itself: “Trolls and Other Nuisances”, 40 “The Antisocial Factor”,41 and “Wikipedia: Nerd Avoidance.”42 In other words, press coverage had shifted from the epistemological merits of Wikipedia to legitimate concerns about bias in its contributor base.
The 2011 New York Times series about gender on Wikipedia followed a 2010 survey conducted by United Nations University and UNU-MERIT that indicated only 12.64% of Wikipedia contributors were female among the respondents.43 Although the results of that study were later challenged,44 the fact that the study received an entire series of articles indicates how the results struck a cultural nerve. What did it say about Wikipedia—and internet knowledge generally—that a disproportionate number of the contributors were men?
One could argue that this shift - from grappling with underpinnings of Wikipedia’s model of knowledge production to a critique of the actual forces and output of the wiki way of doing things - symbolized an implicit acceptance of Wikipedia’s status in the digital age as the preeminent source of knowledge. Media coverage during this period no longer treated Wikipedia as an outlier, a fluke, or as an epistemological disaster to be entirely rejected. Rather, the press focused on negotiating with Wikipedia as an existing phenomena, addressing concerns shared by some in the community - especially women, predating the GamerGate debate of 2014.
Press coverage of Wikipedia throughout the period of 2011 to roughly 2017 largely focused on the online encyclopedia’s structural bias. This coverage also differed markedly from previous years in its detailed treatment of Wikipedia’s internal editorial and community dynamics. The press coverage highlighted not only the gender gap in percentage of female contributors, but in the content of biographical articles, and the efforts by some activists to change the status quo. Publications ranging from The Austin Chronicle45 to The New Yorker46 covered feminist edit-a-thons, annual events to increase and improve Wikipedia’s content for female, queer, and women’s subject, linking contemporary identity politics with the online project’s goal of organizing access to the sum of human knowledge. In addition to gender, the press covered other types of bias such geographical blind spots47 and the site’s exclusion of oral history and other knowledge that did not meet the Western notions of verifiable sources.48
During this period, prestigious publications also began profiling individual Wikipedia contributors, giving faces and names to the forces behind our knowledge. “Wikipedians” were increasingly cast as activists and recognized outside the community. The Washington Post, for example, covered Dr. Adrianne Wadewitz’s death in 2014, noting that Wadewitz was a “Wikipedian” who had “empower[ed] everyday Internet users to be critical of how information is produced on the Internet and move beyond being critical to making it better.”49 The transition from covering the Wikipedia’s accuracy to covering Wikipedians themselves perhaps reflects an increased concern with awareness about the human motivations of the people contributing knowledge online. Many times this took on a humorous tone, like the case of the “ultimate WikiGnome”50 Bryan Henderson whose main contribution to Wikipedia was deleting the term “comprised of” from over 40,000 articles. Journalists (including the authors of this paper) have continued this trend of profiling Wikipedians themselves.
A 2014 YouGov study found that around two thirds of British people trust the authors of Wikipedia pages to tell the truth, a significantly higher percentage than those who trusted journalists.51 At the same time, journalists were increasingly open to recognizing how crucial Wikipedia had become to their profession: With the most dramatic decline in newsroom staffs since the Great Recession, Wikipedia was now used by journalists for conducting initial research52 - another example of the mutually affirming relationship between the media and Wikipedia.
Overall, press coverage of Wikipedia during this period oscillates between fear about the site’s long-term existential prospects53 and concern that the site is continuing the masculinist and Eurocenetric biases of historical encyclopedias. The later is significant, as it shows how Wikipedia’s pretenses of upending the classic print-model of encyclopedias have been accepted by the wider public, which, in turn, is now concerned or even disappointed that despite its promise of liberating the world’s knowledge from the shackles of centralization and expertise, it has in fact recreated much of the biases of yesteryear.
The basis for criticizing Wikipedia shifted. In a 2011 piece for the New York Times, Neal Cohen quoted a French reporter as saying “Making fun of Wikipedia is so 2007.” The more pressing concern, according to Cohen, was “[s]eeing Wikipedia as The Man.”54 Interestingly, press categorization of Wikipedia as The Man continues even as the coverage itself takes a more favorable turn.
Good Cop (2018 - present)
In April 2018, Noam Cohen wrote an article for the Washington Post titled “Conspiracy videos? Fake news? Enter Wikipedia, the ‘good cop’ of the Internet.”55 For more than a decade, Cohen had written about Wikipedia in the popular press, but Cohen’s treatment in his “Good Cop” piece was perhaps his most complimentary. He declared that “fundamentally … the project gets the big questions right.”
Interestingly, Cohen’s “Good Cop” article is not unique for its positive press treatment of Wikipedia during this period and marks the latest shift in coverage of Wikipedia, one that embarks from the issue of truthiness and reexamines it’s merits in wake of the “post-truth” politics and “fake news,” 2016 and 2017’s respective words of the year.
The Wall Street Journal credited Wikipedia’s top arbitration body, ArbCom, with “keeping the peace at internet encyclopedia.”56 Other favorable headlines from 2018 and 2019 included: “In a hysterical world, Wikipedia is a ray of light – and that’s the truth” (John Naughton, The Guardian);57 “Wikipedia, the Last Bastion of Shared Reality” (Alexis C. Madrigal, The Atlantic);58 and “Happy 18th birthday, Wikipedia. Let’s celebrate the Internet’s good grown up” (Stephen Harrison, The Washington Post).59
What caused press coverage of Wikipedia to pivot from criticizing the encyclopedia as The Man to recognizing Wikipedia’s importance as the Good Cop? Several factors converged to cast Wikipedia in a more favorable light. Since the election of President Trump in the United States, the mainstream press has expressed concerns about whether traditional notions of truth and reality-based argument can survive under an administration that is infamous for lying and so-called “alternative facts.” The “truthiness” culture of intellectual promiscuity represented by the Presidency of George W Bush had deteriorated into the post-truth culture of the Trump White House. Wikipedia’s procedural answers for the question what is a fact, initially hailed as flawed, could now be taken in a different light.60
Wikipedia’s emphasis on neutral point of view, and the community’s goal to maintain an objective description of reality, represents an increasingly striking contrast to politicians around the world whose rhetoric is not reality-based.61 Moreover, Wikipedia’s community’s commitment to sourcing claims and the community set-standards regarding classic media (exemplified by Wikipedia’s community ban on the Daily Mail in 2017 and of Breitbart in 2018) highlighted how Wikipedia’s model now taken to be rigorous than that of classic media in fighting “fake news.”62
2018 also saw Wikipedia lock horns with some of those considered supportive of Trump and the “post-truth” discourse, including Breitbart and even Russian media. The so-called “Philip Cross affair”63 saw a British editor face accusation that he was in fact a front for the U.K.’s Ministry of Defense or even the American CIA, claims that were parroted out by both Sputnik and Breitbart, with the later all but declaring war on the online encyclopedia64 (running no less than 10 negative reports about it in as many months, including headlines like “Wikipedia Editors Paid to Protect Political, Tech, and Media Figures” and “Wikipedia Editors Post Fake News on Summary of Mueller Probe”). 2018 also saw the the clearest example of Russian intervention in Wikipedia, with Russian agent Maria Butina being outed by the community for trying to scrub her own Wikipedia page.65
The shift toward more positive press treatment of Wikipedia also overlaps with a general trend toward negative coverage of for-profit technology sites. For the past two years, Facebook, Google, Twitter, and YouTube have been chastised in the press for privacy violations, election hacking, and platforming hateful content. But Wikipedia has largely dodged these criticisms. Complimentary journalists have noted the site’s rare position as a nonprofit in the most visited websites in the world, and praised its operating model. As Brian Feldman pointed out in his piece for New York Magazine “Why Wikipedia Works,” the site’s norms of review and monitoring by a community of editors, and deleting false information and inflammatory material, seems vastly superior to the way social media platforms like Twitter fail to moderate similarly problematic content.66
It’s important to note that even during this period of relatively favorable press coverage of Wikipedia, newspapers are publishing highly critical articles - however, with a clear eye on reforming it more than calling to reject its model as inherently flawed.67 Wikipedia received significant media attention in 2018 when Donna Strickland won a Nobel Prize in physics and, at the time of her award, did not have a Wikipedia page; an earlier entry had been deleted by an editor who found that Strickland lacked sufficient notability, despite the fact her two male co-laureates had pages for the same academic research that earned the three the prestigious award. But note how press coverage of the Strickland did not dispute Wikipedia’s premise (as it did in earlier phases described in this article), but rather continued the structural argument from the last phase. Furthermore, by this era the Wikimedia Foundation had increasingly begun speaking publicly about matters of concern to the Wikipedia community. When it came to the Strickland incident, the Wikimedia Foundation was not overly apologetic in its public statements, with Executive Director Katherine Maher writing an op-ed for the LA Times titled “Wikipedia mirrors the world’s gender biases, it doesn’t cause them.”68 Maher challenged journalists to write more stories about notable women so that volunteer Wikipedians have sufficient material to source in their attempt to fix the bias, another example of the growing awareness of the symbiotic relationship between media and Wikipedia.
The Strickland incident is in some ways an outlier during a time of relatively favorable press coverage of Wikipedia. How long will this honeymoon period last? One indication that the pendulum will swing back in a more-critical direction is the coverage of large technology companies using Wikipedia. The press widely covered YouTube’s 2018 announcement that it was relying on Wikipedia to counteract videos promoting conspiracy theories. Journalists also wrote - at the time critically - about Facebook’s plan to give background information from Wikipedia about publications to combat fake news, Google’s use of Wikipedia content for its knowledge panels, and how smart assistants like Siri and Alexa pull information from the site.
Prominent tech critics have questioned whether it is truly appropriate to leverage Wikipedia as the “good cop” since the site is maintained by unpaid volunteers, and tech companies are using it for commercial purposes. But perhaps it’s less important whether it’s fair or prudent for technology companies to leverage Wikipedia in this way—from the perspective of the popular press, the appearance of partnership is enough. The more it seems as if Wikipedia has become aligned with Big Tech, the more likely the encyclopedia will receive similarly adverse coverage.
Over the span of nearly two decades, Wikipedia went from being heralded as the original fake news, a symbol of all that is wrong with the internet, to being the “good cop” of the web and the best medicine against the scourge of disinformation. This process was predicated on Wikipedia’s epistemic model gaining social acceptance as well as the project’s ability to earn the public’s trust and offer an alternative to mainstream media. Comparisons to older encyclopedias have all but disappeared. More common are appeals like Maher’s request after the Donna Strickland story that journalists aid Wikipedia in its attempt to reform by publishing more articles about women. This phenomenon highlights how Wikipedia is now a fixture within our media landscape, increasingly both the source of coverage and the story itself.
Understanding the mutually affirming and dynamic between media and Wikipedia opens up a rare opportunity to engage directly with some of the issues underscoring “fake news” - from critical reading of different sources, to basic epistemological debates, issues that were once considered too academic for mainstream media are now finding their place in the public discourse through coverage of Wikipedia. For example, reports about Strickland's lack of a Wikipedia article helped make accessible many aspects of feminist theory of knowledge, while also creating space for a debate regarding Wikipedia’s sourcing policy and its role in enforcing existing biases. Meanwhile, reports about Wikipedia being blocked in countries such as China and Turkey have allowed for a discussion of the politics of knowledge online as well as a debate regarding the differences between Wikipedias in different languages and local biases. Detailed and critical reports like these are part of a new sub-genre of journalism that has emerged in the past years, what we term “wiki journalism”: Coverage of Wikipedia as a social and political arena in its own right.69
Nonetheless, much more can be done - by journalists, the Wikimedia Foundation and even the Wikipedia community of volunteers. Though Wikipedia’s technology ensures transparency of its processes, public understanding of Wikipedia’s processes, bureaucracy, and internal jargon is still an obstacle for would-be-editors and journalists alike. Despite its open format, the majority of Wikipedia is edited by a fraction of its overall editors, indicating the rise of an encyclopedic elite not too dissimilar in characteristics than that of media and academia. To increase diversity in Wikipedia and serve the public interest requires journalists to go beyond “gotcha” headlines. Much of the popular coverage of Wikipedia is still lacking and is either reductive or superficial, treating Wikipedia as a unified voice and amplifying minor errors and vandalism. Many times, reports like these needlessly politicize Wikipedia. For example, after a vandal wrote that the Republican Party in of California believed in “Nazism” and the error was aggregated by Alexa and Google, reports attributed blame to Wikipedia.
Instead of focusing on these, media should work to increase Wikipedia literacy, dedicating more coverage to the project’s inner workings and policies. Although the Wikimedia Foundation has taken steps to make press contacts available in recent years, there is still work to be done to enhance communication between Wikipedia and the media. For example, the Wikimedia Foundation refuses to comment on content disputes (claiming they are an internal community issue) and journalists looking to cover Wikipedia have no official spokesperson to talk to for background or practical instruction. Jimmy Wales serves as a de facto figurehead for the online encyclopedia, but only a privileged few enjoy informal exchanges with Wikipedia’s “benevolent dictator”70 and a more formal media relation policy should be developed specifically for Wikipedia. Creating a special status for wiki journalists, for exampling, recognizing their users and granting them read-only status to deleted articles and censored edits, could help journalists better understand the full context of edit wars.
The community must too be more open to working with media and take a much less aggressive approach to external coverage of their debates. Many times, editors are reluctant to speak to reporters and are antagonistic towards unversed users who have come to mend an error or bias they have read about in the media. Wikipedia editors must accept their social role and not just allow the media to highlight problems within their community, but proactively flag issues, helping reporters sift through countless debates and find the truly important stories, instead of limiting themselves to the Signpost and demanding journalists and the public fix Wikipedia themselves.
Together, journalists, the Wikimedia Foundation and the community, can help create deeply reported coverage of Wikipedia. High-quality wiki journalism would not treat Wikipedia as a monolithic agent that speaks in one voice, but rather would seek to understand the roots of its biases and shortcomings. This will serve to highlight the politics of knowledge production instead of politicizing knowledge itself.