Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Rule #1 Of Journalism: Never Trust Wikipedia

You'd think that that would be obvious, but this story has just completely baffled my mind. And while it has nothing to do with sports or anything, this is just too funny and for mainstream media, too embarrassing not to put on here. On March 28, 2009, a French composer named Maurice Jarre passed away. A few hours after that, a Dublin University student and sociology major, Shane Fitzgerald, decided on an experiement to create a realistic, but nonetheless phony quote intended to get placed on obituaries everywhere. So where did Mr. Fitzgerald decide to place this fake quote? On Wikipedia! And the mainstream media all over the world bought it. Hook, line, and sinker. THIS WAS AN UNSOURCED, UNCREDITED QUOTE AND YET NEWSPAPERS AND BLOGS EVERYWHERE CREDITED JARRE WITH THIS QUOTE!!!!!!!!! By sheer coincidence (I stumbled upon this as a link a friend of mine put up on Facebook), from Yahoo! Finance.

The sociology major's obituary-friendly quote -- which he added to the Wikipedia page of Maurice Jarre hours after the French composer's death March 28 -- flew straight on to dozens of U.S. blogs and newspaper Web sites in Britain, Australia and India. They used the fabricated material, Fitzgerald said, even though administrators at the free online encyclopedia twice caught the quote's lack of attribution and removed it.

A full month went by and nobody noticed the editorial fraud. So Fitzgerald told several media outlets they'd swallowed his baloney whole.

"I was really shocked at the results from the experiment," Fitzgerald, 22, said Monday in an interview a week after one newspaper at fault, The Guardian of Britain, became the first to admit its obituarist lifted material straight from Wikipedia.

"I am 100 percent convinced that if I hadn't come forward, that quote would have gone down in history as something Maurice Jarre said, instead of something I made up," he said. "It would have become another example where, once anything is printed enough times in the media without challenge, it becomes fact."

So far, The Guardian is the only publication to make a public mea culpa, while others have eliminated or amended their online obituaries without any reference to the original version -- or in a few cases, still are citing Fitzgerald's florid prose weeks after he pointed out its true origin.

"One could say my life itself has been one long soundtrack," Fitzgerald's fake Jarre quote read. "Music was my life, music brought me to life, and music is how I will be remembered long after I leave this life. When I die there will be a final waltz playing in my head that only I can hear."

Fitzgerald said one of his University College Dublin classes was exploring how quickly information was transmitted around the globe. His private concern was that, under pressure to produce news instantly, media outlets were increasingly relying on Internet sources -- none more ubiquitous than the publicly edited Wikipedia.

When he saw British 24-hour news channels reporting the death of the triple Oscar-winning composer, Fitzgerald sensed what he called "a golden opportunity" for an experiment on media use of Wikipedia.

He said it took him less than 15 minutes to fabricate and place a quote calculated to appeal to obituary writers without distorting Jarre's actual life experiences. He noted that the Wikipedia listing on Jarre did not have any other strong quotes.

If anything, Fitzgerald said, he expected newspapers to avoid his quote because it had no link to a source -- and even might trigger alarms as "too good to be true." But many blogs and several newspapers used the quotes at the start or finish of their obituaries.

He said the Guardian was the only publication to respond to him in detail and with remorse at its own editorial failing. Others, he said, treated him as a vandal who was solely to blame for their cut-and-paste content.

"The moral of this story is not that journalists should avoid Wikipedia, but that they shouldn't use information they find there if it can't be traced back to a reliable primary source," said the readers' editor at the Guardian, Siobhain Butterworth, in the May 4 column that revealed Fitzgerald as the quote author.
A MONTH!!!!!!!! Unbelieveable. These are not just some kinky, small-town newspapers either that we are talking about, The Guardian is one of the most well-known and critically acclaimed newspapers out there. One would think that credible media outlets would stop and check their sources, especially if it is an uncredited quote on Wikipedia, but I guess those are just the times and how much of a cultural phenomenon Wikipedia has become. And while this may seem contradictory, as a college student, Wikipedia can be a very helpful tool, there's no doubt about it. You just have to check to make sure that all of the information is linked back to a source and you have to make sure that that source is credible.

But yeah, as far as mainstream journalism goes I have two points a). Why are you using an uncredibed source on Wikipedia? and secondly, b). Why on earth are you going to Wikipedia to write an obituary on a dead composer in the first place???? You'd think that this information would come along the lines of, oh, I don't know, MAYBE SPEAKING TO THE COMPOSER'S FAMILY AND FRIENDS!!!!!

It's official:
Shane Fitzpatrick 1
Mainstream outlets across the world 0.

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