How Reliable Is Wikipedia?

| by Reason Foundation

By Bill Flanigen

I recently noted the media blackout surrounding the kidnapping of New York Times' reporter David Rohde in Afghanistan. When Rohde was nabbed by the Taliban last year, the Times coordinated the suppression of the story with other media outlets, ostensibly to protect him. Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales and other Wikipedia editors cooperated with the blackout, censoring Rohde's Wikipedia page to omit information about the kidnapping that at least one ornery editor was repeatedly attempting to add.

National Public Radio's "On The Media" did a short segment on Friday with Wales about the kidnapping. It's worth a listen. Wales discusses some of the ethical questions surrounding news suppression in a WikiWorld:

[Wikipedia's editors have] never considered ourselves a wide-open free-speech forum where people can post speculative things. We just look at it and we say, well, yes, there was one report here—and a couple of blogs—but it wasn't reported anywhere else, so, who knows. Now, of course, I knew that it was true because The New York Times contacted me to ask what could be done about it. But it's not my obligation to report everything I know, just as it wouldn't be for anybody....

We have the sort of deeper question, which I've struggled with...which is the question of, well, what really is the best thing to do here? The New York Times told me that they were acting on advice that it would be best if it was kept quiet, and I just chose to believe that.

This could work as an after-the-fact justification for censorship, depending on how reputable you consider the sources originally cited to be. That question is still wide open. If the sources were reliable, Wales and other editors were engaged in the selective suppression of properly verifiable and topical information about Rohde—raising the sorts of questions about ethical wiki management that I discussed in my previous post about the Rohde affair. Otherwise, they were just enforcing one of Wikipedia's core content policies (albeit with unusual vigilance).

NPR link via the estimable (and unlinkable) Logan Dobson.