Reporting in the Age of ‘Alternative Facts’

As I poured through a series of editors’ questions on a 12,000-word article recently, methodically answering each one in order, I stopped suddenly at one question: “Just checking, but Wikipedia says $56 million???” Really? I’m actually getting a reference to Wikipedia from an editor?

I skipped on to the next question, hoping to calm my irritation before I returned to that one. The use of reliable sources for accurate facts had long been ingrained in me as a journalist, and I know that while Wikipedia isn’t a bad place to start research, I never rely on it or even quote it. And I had never had an editor throw a Wikipedia fact at me.

Yet when I went back and checked multiple other (traditionally reliable) sources, the figure was in fact correct. Only then did I feel comfortable using it.

Today I learned from Andrew Lih, author of The Wikipedia Revolution: How a Bunch of Nobodies Created the World’s Great Encyclopedia (2009),  that perhaps I shouldn’t have been so upset with the editor. Apparently, Wikipedia has come a long way since my son’s elementary school teachers (he’s a sophomore in college now) reprimanded the students to NEVER use it as a source.

“Wikipedia … is pretty much all edited by volunteers,” admitted Lih, an associate professor of journalism at American University. “But on balance, those who volunteer to edit Wikipedia are there to try to create a better Wikipedia, and the number of those who are there to cause trouble is actually very small. And it’s that imbalance –between people who want to be productive members of the Wikipedia writing community and the miscreants … that imbalance makes good information bubble up to the top. And in this era of fake news and questionable facts, it’s more important than ever to have Wikipedia as [a reliable] base for knowledge.”

Andrew and his wife Mei Fong, author of One Child: The Story of China’s Most Radical Experiment (2016),  led a discussion titled, “Knowledge Wars: Libraries, Books and News in the Age of Alt-Facts” at the Mansion at Strathmore in North Bethesda as a fundraiser for Friends of the Library, Montgomery County.

Lih, a contributor and administrator for Wikipedia, said that while such a free online, volunteer-based encyclopedia shouldn’t work in theory, in actuality it does.

He started studying Wikipedia in 2006, back before iPhones and social media existed. The product was five years old at the time, provided about 30,000 to 40,000 articles on everything from cats and dogs to cities and earth, and was in the midst of a massive growth curve. Today, the site’s growth has moderated but remains within the top ten most visible websites – behind only such biggies like Facebook—and contains 5.3 million English language articles (compared to Britannica’s 50,000 articles), Lih said. It also provides articles in more than 270 languages. Want to read about something in Welsh or Swahili? No problem.

Wikipedia now gets 20 billion page views per month and 500 million unique visitors per month – that’s 1,000 times more than the world’s top museums get in terms of in-person or website visits, Lih said.

How can we be sure the articles are accurate? That’s where those “do-gooder” volunteer editors come in – about 80,0000 users editing an average of five articles a month, another 11,000 users editing 100 articles each month – as well as Wikipedia’s administrators monitoring for professional standards. Administrators mandate, for instance, that articles portray a neutral point of view and that content be verifiable with links to reliable sources.

Wikipedia’s constant expansion of information and the increasing number of users poking at articles create additional challenges for administrators to ensure no one (like a corporate public relations representative, say) is unduly or improperly influencing or slanting the content.

Regardless, the online encyclopedia has gained the trust of a growing number of archival experts. In 2011, the U.S. National Archives hired history buff Dominic McDevitt to be its first Wikipedian in Residence to move the knowledge of the archives over to Wikipedia.

Lih also says David Ferriero, the archivist of the United States, is a fan of Wikipedia (Ferriero did say that in a 2012 speech at Wikimania 2012. And on Friday Lih is scheduled to talk to congressional researchers about how Wikipedia can help them do their work.

It’s exciting to think that Wikipedia might one day become the top archival source for any information – but we also know it can’t cover all the information we need or want. Ask Lih’s wife Mei Fong, author of One Child, who traveled all over China to uncover who was behind the formation of the Communist Party’s policy mandating one child per married couple (military scientists, it turned out – not economists, sociologists, or health experts), the truth behind how the one-child policy was implemented (which varied province to province), and the long-term effects it had on families and the entire economic, social, and cultural systems of the country.

“While Andrew wrote about how to gain truth and knowledge,” Fong said, “I was doing the same thing, but with low-tech, more traditional methods.”

Fong traveled the country, interviewing parents who had lost their own child, then were shunned by society; parents whose children were snatched away by child traffickers seeking to profit from the adoption market overseas; those who risked punishment for daring to have more than one child; women who sought fertility treatments to boost the odds they might have twins – perhaps boys even – which would grant them a reprieve from the one-child policy. She even tracked the hardship of only children caring for aging parents, or men unable to find a wife in a country where males now far outnumber females.

“I got to the hidden stories and the truth behind them,” Fong said. Certainly something she couldn’t get by reading Wikipedia.

I returned home from the discussion this afternoon to resume work on my hunt for information on a World War II military intelligence officer I want to include in a writing project. The only information of his life after the war appears to be on Wikipedia, but a source tells me that isn’t the right man.

So what to do? Return to that old-fashioned, nontechnical journalism method and talk to people. And we’ll see if I can verify those facts, or if I need to gain access to edit that entry …

-Christina L. Lyons

NOTE: One Child, in which Fong also expertly weaves in her own reflections on a father frustrated with having only daughters as well as her own yearnings to become a mother herself, is a riveting read. Fong also talked about her reporting on the book with my Teen Writers Club last fall. The teens were quickly drawn in by her accounts of a dystopian society that seemed so like those they had only read about in young adult novels.

ALSO NOTE: Tom Nichols, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College, gave a related talk recently based on his book, The Death of Expertise (2017), at Politics and Prose in Washington, D.C.

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