Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Sarah Palin, Wikipedia, and The New York Times

The New York Times had a recent article on edits to Sarah Palin’s Wikipedia biography that appeared to clean up and expand the article a few hours before her selection as the Republican vice-presidential candidate was announced.

The New York Times article is inaccurate. There is one minor inaccuracy, one factual error, and one serious omission.

First, the minor inaccuracy: The Wikipedia user’s name in question was not “YoungTrigg” but “Young Trigg” with a space. This isn’t as trivial as it might seem: Wikipedia user names are very sensitive and someone trying to follow-up on the article might have difficulty finding the pages discussed in the New York Times article if they did not know this and were not familiar with navigating Wikipedia. Furthermore, this shows sloppy reporting. I could understand how a copy-editor might change “YoungTrigg” as one word to “Young Trigg” as two words but I am at loss to find an explanation other than sloppiness for going in the other direction.

Second, the factual error: The New York Times claims that Young Trigg’s edits to the Palin article were “all positive.” This is false. As Trigg pointed out on his talk page after the matter blew up on Wikipedia, Trigg expanded the section concerning the state-trooper controversy. The addition, while not negative, is not positive either. Indeed, the overall thrust of the edit is to add more negative material about Wooten, the state trooper who Palin is accused of trying to get fired due to familiar disputes. The edits in question also contain some minor elements which could be construed as making the section more positive for Palin. However, the expansion in general makes the section more prominent in the article and does not make Palin look good. From the timestamps, it appears that the New York Times writer, Noam Cohen, read Trigg’s talk page after this comment was made.[1]

Third, the omission: What happened to the article overall shows how well the system on Wikipedia works. Young Trigg’s edits that were well-sourced and relevant (most of them) stayed in. Edits that were slanted towards Palin or otherwise not-neutral were removed. Most of Trigg’s edits have stayed for the simple reason that most of them were good edits. So even if Trigg was an operative sent by the McCain campaign (which frankly, I doubt), this shows Wikipedia triumphing over that.

This quick self-correction is connected to a general point that I’ve tried to make before that seems to often get lost: people often say that Wikipedia is fine for non-controversial topics but is bad for controversial ones. The almost exact opposite is true. Controversial topics have many more editors looking at them and thus will be more likely to be neutral and well-sourced.

One final remark: in Wikipedia and Wikimedia circles Noam Cohen is considered to be be one of the more accurate reporters on Wikipedia matters. This article is about average for him. As far as I can tell, the primary reason that Cohen is highly regarded is not that he is a such an accurate reporter, but that almost everyone else is far worse.

[1] The New York Times article notes that the Young Trigg account retired. The retirement announcement on the page was added in the same edit that Trigg made his comment that he had not made only positive edits.

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