Wikinews and Multiperspectival Reporting
Benjamin Mako Hill is an scholar, activist, and consultant working on issues of technology and society. He is currently a researcher and Ph.D. Candidate in a joint program between the MIT Sloan School of Management and the MIT Media Lab, a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, and a Research Fellow at the MIT Center for Civic Media. His research focuses on sociological analyses of social structure in free culture and free software communities. He has been an leader, developer, and contributor to the Free and Open Source Software community for more than a decade as part of the Debian and Ubuntu projects. He is the author of several best-selling technical books, and a member of the Free Software Foundation board of directors. He is an advisor to the Wikimedia Foundation and the One Laptop per Child project. Hill as a Masters degree from the MIT Media Lab.
Wikinews and Multiperspectival Reporting
Wikinews is a wiki in which users write news articles collaboratively. The project, established in 2004, is run by the Wikimedia Foundation, the organization that also supports Wikipedia. Wikinews has produced over 37,000 articles in 22 languages, with roughly one quarter of those in the English language version of the site. The site foundered early; its output seems to have stabilized to about 4-6 news articles daily, compared to an average of 16 articles each day in 2004.
Comparing Wikinews to other “participatory” news sites such as Ohmynews and Indymedia, Axel Bruns contrasted “multiperspectival coverage of the news” with the Wikinews collaborative model. Bruns concluded that Wikinews’ troubles stem, at least in part, from the project’s strong adherence to the neutral point of view (NPOV) principle adopted from the Wikipedia project–a complex concept that aims to ensure that a variety of different perspectives are fairly integrated into an article in an unbiased way. NPOV requirements and guidelines in Wikimedia projects such as Wikinews and Wikipedia serve to frame discussion so that users can work toward the goal of a single article that incorporates each of their divergent perspectives–a technical requirement for collaboration in wikis.
Other commentators have also blamed NPOV and its consensus requirement for Wikinews’ travails. The Washington Post attributed Wikinews’ difficulties in part to the cumbersome peer-review process designed to ensure NPOV. Blogger Matthew Yeoman claimed that “in their zeal for a Neutral Point of View, Wikinews seems to revise the life out of their stories, reducing lively news coverage to dull regurgitation of facts.” Bruns commented that “while the Wikipedia’s NPOV doctrine is commendable in an encyclopedic context, then, it cannot apply in the same way for Wikinews; indeed, it may even be counterproductive where it stifles engaged debate on complex issues.” In volunteer news production–more so than encyclopedia article writing–editorializing seems to play a more central, motivating role.
An example from Wikinews illustrates this point. Aaron, a new editor on Wikinews, was an active editor in Wikipedia. Making an effort to maintain neutrality, Aaron wrote a draft of an article for Wikinews on how CNN had hired three right-wing commentators, and on speculation by various members of the press that this strategy was designed to help the news network compete with Fox News, which had recently surpassed CNN in the cable news ratings in part due to its reputation for right-wing punditry.
Aaron’s article was quickly and strongly attacked by several other editors on the site. One editor, concerned by the political subject of the article, said, “this is not really news in its current form … because I still think it’s your opinion.” Editors suggested changes to the title, introduction, and other sections of the article with which Aaron disagreed, but ultimately incorporated the changes to allow publication. In his creation of two other articles–also on political issues–Aaron ran into similar opposition from different editors. He became disenchanted with Wikinews and ceased contributing.
Aaron’s selection of article topic was politically motivated. Aaron self-identifies as a leftist and wanted to highlight what he saw as a dangerous shift to the right by CNN. Several of his article’s most vocal opponents on Wikinews had strongly stated right-wing positions on their personal websites. Although he made efforts to maintain NPOV throughout the process, articles with political impact attracted the ire of editors with opposing politics and claims, perhaps untrue, of lost neutrality. In this sense, Wikinews’ adherence to NPOV can become problematic because news–and political news in particular–is, unsurprisingly enough, frequently politicized.
Google News currently aggregates news from more than 4,500 English-language news sources. Major news stories will frequently be the subject of hundreds or thousands of articles visible in Google News, many of them representing only slight modifications to stories written by several major wire services. Traditional news reporting agencies diverge on the text of wire articles in an effort to tailor stories to the interests and politics of their audiences. The vast multiplicity of audiences in contemporary mainstream news publishing may testify to readers’ strong desires for this type of customization. While most encyclopedia readers are happy with a single encyclopedia from a neutral point of view, it seems possible that news readers will be more reticent. Wikinews’ insistence of single articles over news from multiple perspectives is unable to cater to the desires of diverse communities of writers, and is poorly suited to producing the type of news that many news readers want.
Research and text for this article was in Cooperation in Parallel, a master’s thesis in the Media Arts and Sciences program at MIT.