Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Wikipedia pitfalls and pratfalls

Last Monday morning, I was reading the Philippine Star over breakfast, and I came across an article by Abac Cordero in the Sports section, with the shamelessly sensationalized and misleading headline "Parkinson's disease likely for Hatton?". I was peeved at how the article seemed to be issuing a death sentence for Ricky Hatton, in what came off as tasteless gloating. C'mon, it's not enough Pacquiao knocked him out cold, we have to condemn the man to a neurological disorder? Could we be a little more gracious in victory please?

But what really got my attention AND my goat was this sentence from said article:

A seizure, according to wikipedia, can last few seconds, and are often associated with a sudden and involuntary contraction of a group of muscles and loss of consciousness.

I have always had issues with the depressingly low quality of Philippine journalism (see this and this), but I didn't think it had sunk so low as to allow writers to openly cite Wikipedia as a source. To make matters worse, I looked up "seizure" in Wikipedia, and I found out that Mr. Cordero had actually done some poor patchwork plagiarism (which accounts for the glaring grammatical errors), and lifted part of the definition verbatim but neglected to enclose it in quotation marks to indicate such. Foul!

While I am staunchly against all forms of plagiarism (I believe I am now notoriously known as the Scourge of Plagiarism in at least 2 schools), I am by no means anti-Wikipedia. Indeed, I have cited it in my blog on more than one occasion. However, I balk at acknowledging it as a credible source for academic and journalistic purposes. Some time ago I recall having an exchange of comments over Multiply with a couple of high school kids, debating the merits of Wikipedia as a source of factual information. One kid argued that all the data found in Wikipedia is guaranteed to be accurate, owing to the screening and editing of the site's administrators. I contended that even so, erroneous information could still be posted before any moderation takes place. My favorite, unintentionally hilarious example: the La Salle Green Archers' Wikipedia page once identified only 3 players on their 2007 roster as Filipinos, and the rest foreigners (with Atkins and Walsham labeled American, Maierhofer German, Malabes an Iranian national, and Tang, Cua and Co hailing from the People's Republic of China!). This is precisely why back when I was still teaching, I always discouraged my students from relying too heavily on online sources.

Just last night, I read about the sneaky but smart social experiment pulled off by Shane Fitzgerald, a university student from Ireland. Fitzgerald posted a bogus quote on a dead composer's Wikipedia page, which was subsequently picked up and used by several newspapers in their obituaries/tributes to the composer.

They used the fabricated material, Fitzgerald said, even though administrators at the free online encyclopedia quickly caught the quote's lack of attribution and removed it, but not quickly enough to keep some journalists from cutting and pasting it first. (from the same Associated Press article linked previously)

This successful hoax has caused a significant deal of embarrassment among the punk'd publications, which serves them right for being so careless. Doesn't anyone give a rat's ass about journalistic integrity? Are we all willing to compromise it in exchange for speed and convenience? Can no one be bothered to corroborate facts and double-check sources anymore? Maybe we should just stop reading newspapers all together and just go to Wikipedia and Twitter and YouTube to keep abreast on current events.

Wikipedia may be handy and helpful, and props to its administrators for their valiant efforts to keep the site error-free, but it is not foolproof, as Shane Fitzgerald has demonstrated to the world.
Interestingly, there is actually a Wikipedia page on "criticism of Wikipedia". Perhaps all journalists, including Mr. Abac Cordero, should read it before using any more information from a wiki and trying to pass it off as gospel truth.


At Friday, June 15, 2012, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Abac Cordero has done it again. This time it's a front page article. He stated that it was Duane Ford who scored the fight in favor of Pacquiao. He also misspelled Jerry Roth's name to Jerry Ross.

I wonder how this slipped through their editors. And it is ironic because this was the issue wherein Philippine Star bragged their title as Newspaper of the year.


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