Wikipedia’s ban of Daily Mail exposes news publisher flaws

Who doesn’t love a good media feud?

As reported by the Guardian on February 8, the English language Wikipedia has (mostly) banned the Daily Mail as an acceptable source for citation, after declaring it “unreliable”. The report touched a nerve; the Mail swiftly issued a shrill and rambling retort, and the story was swiftly picked up in more than a dozen other publications.

But this feud more than a mere “pass the popcorn” moment. It’s also a learning opportunity, highlighting important dynamics in how media outlets function. The widespread interest in how Wikipedia evaluates its sources is welcome and overdue. In this post, I’ll consider:

  1. What’s the context of Wikipedia’s decision? What exactly was the decision, how was it made, and how binding is it?
  2. Was it the right decision?
  3. What insights does the media response to Wikipedia’s decision offer?

1. What Wikipedia decided, and how

The decision about the Daily Mail may be the first such decision to be widely reported, but Wikipedia editors routinely make decisions about the suitability of sources. We have to! Hundreds of thousands of volunteer editors write and maintain Wikipedia. Evaluating the relative merits of competing sources has been a central approach to resolving the inevitable disagreements that arise, throughout the site’s history. In fact, Wikipedia has a highly active discussion board devoted to the topic. A 2008 discussion about Huffington Post (with cogent arguments for both inclusion and exclusion, though it did not result a blanket decision one way or another) is just one of hundreds of discussions where Wikipedia editors weigh sources against the site’s criteria.

Journalist Noam Cohen, Wikimedia director Katherine Maher, journalism professor Tim Wu discussed Wikipedia’s reliability in January 2017. Photo by King of Hearts, licensed CC BY-SA.

With topics like “fake news” and “alternative facts” dominating recent headlines, much has been said about Wikipedia’s diligence in evaluating sources. The central role of human evaluation sets Wikipedia apart from other top web sites like Facebook and Twitter; and the relative transparency of Wikipedia’s process sets it apart from other top publishers. These distinctions have been highlighted in many venues, by prominent Wikipedians including former Wikimedia Foundation (WMF) trustee James Heilman, WMF director Katherine Maher, and Wikipedia cofounder Jimmy Wales.

The discussion, and the formal finding at its conclusion, are available for public review; click above for the details.

In the context of Wikipedia’s usual process, the Daily Mail decision was pretty unremarkable. A few dozen Wikipedians deliberated, and then five site administrators made the decision based on their understanding of the discussion, and its ties to Wikipedia policy and precedent.

Consensus has determined that the Daily Mail (including its online version, is generally unreliable, and its use as a reference is to be generally prohibited, especially when other more reliable sources exist. …

One angle seems under-reported: the decision was not based on a mere “majority rule” vote of partisan Wikipedians; it was (as always) an effort to determine the best path forward in light of what is publicly known.

Numerous independent evaluations of the Daily Mail’s diligence were considered by Wikipedia editors. That’s at the heart of how we work, in this and similar cases; we consider what reputable publications have had to say.

2. Wikipedia’s decision

Wikipedia editors made their ruling. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons

Criticism of the Wikipedia decision boils down to two things:

  • The legitimacy of the process: Were there enough Wikipedia editors involved in the decision? Was the discussion open for long enough before a decision was made?
  • The reasoning of the decision: Was the deliberation thorough and sound? Was it infected with partisan bias, or did it ignore important facts?

To properly address the process questions would require a detailed breakdown of how Wikipedia decisions are made. I’ve taken on such questions elsewhere. Without getting into the details, consider: would you want an analysis of a U.S. Senate decision from somebody who knows little of the Senate’s parliamentary rules, or of the U.S. court system from somebody who’s never read a law journal? Views on Wikipedia’s process from arbitrary media commentators should be viewed with a skeptical eye.

As a longtime Wikipedia administrator, I’ll say this: The number of people involved and the length of time were entirely sufficient to satisfy Wikipedia’s requirements. Like nearly every Wikipedia decision, this one can be overturned in the future, if there’s reason to do so. The questions about Wikipedia’s process are without merit.

So, how diligent were those making the decision? Well, I’m not necessarily better qualified to answer that than any other Wikipedian, so I’m not here to give an overall endorsement or rebuttal; instead, I’d mainly encourage you to read the discussion and decision, and decide for yourself. But, here are a few observations:

It seems the Mail had been widely criticized long before Wikipedia took up the question.

I expect you’ll agree that those in the discussion considered a wide variety of evidence — much of it from independent media commentators. Perhaps, if you’re a careful media observer, you know of something they missed. Wikipedians tend to be receptive to new information; so the best thing to do, if you do have further information, is to present it for consideration. You could, for instance, start a new discussion. But before you do so, consider carefully: is your evidence truly likely to sway the decision? You’ll be asking a lot of volunteers for their attention; please exercise that option with appropriate caution.

You might also ask yourself whether there is evidence of partisan bias in what you read. I didn’t see any, but perhaps you disagree. Again, if it’s there, it’s worth pointing out. As a rule, Wikipedians don’t like the idea that politics might influence the site’s content any better than you do. If such a bias can be demonstrated (which is a lot more than a mere accusation), perhaps something can be done about it.

One point, raised in several venues since the decision, does sound out. To quote the Guardian’s Charles Arthur (archive link):

There’s … a distinction to be made between the [Mail’s] website, which churns stories at a colossal rate and doesn’t always check facts first, and the newspaper, which (in my experience, going up against its writers) does. The problem is that you can’t see which derives from which when all you do is go for the online one.

Andrew Orlowski of the Register noted the brand confusion among the Mail’s various properties, as well. A 2012 New Yorker profile delves deeper, offering useful background on the various brands within the Daily Mail brand.

3. The Guardian’s solid analysis, rooted in non-sequitur

The Daily Mail didn’t like the statement. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons

The Daily Mail issued a rather amusing statement on the matter; there’s no substance to it, but curious readers may enjoy my line-by-line rebuttal.

But some of the coverage the episode sparked contained genuine insights.

The Guardian offered a solid followup piece, delving into many of the issues involved. But while the reporting was accurate and helpful, the Guardian inadvertently further illustrated the great gulf between traditional media and Wikipedia. Without explanation, the reporter declined to build the story around an interview with one of the decision-makers involved in the case.

Five people ultimately made Wikipedia’s decision about the Daily Mail; they would have made worthy sources for the Guardian story. If they weren’t available, there are more than 1,200 of us with the authority to make such a decision, who can therefore provide expert commentary on the matter. But instead, the Guardian centered its story on Wikimedia executive director Katherine Maher. Maher is of course aware of the various issues, and represented Wikipedia admirably. The choice to feature her in an interview, though, was roughly equivalent to seeking out the U.N. secretary general for comment on a domestic decision of the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Guardian story acknowledged the point in its second paragraph, but inexplicably chose to focus on Maher’s views anyway. What’s going on here?

To earn a comment from the top executive at a ~$100 million organization, it helps to have status, and it helps to have connections. The Guardian, of course, has both. It’s one of the world’s top news outlets, and Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales (one of Maher’s bosses on the organization’s board of trustees) sits on the Guardian’s board.

To get a comment from one of 1,200+ volunteer administrators of the world’s most widely read source of original comment, though, takes good old fashioned legwork. You send a message, you pick up the phone, and if you don’t get a decent response, you go on to the next person. It’s not sexy, and it’s not always fun but if you stick to it, sooner or later you have a real basis for solid reporting.

Wikipedia, of course, is famous for its hordes of detail-oriented volunteers. If the media needed a clear demonstration that Wikipedia might just be better equipped for certain tasks than traditional publications like the Daily Mail or the Guardian, it need look no further.

About Pete Forsyth

Pete Forsyth is the principal of Wiki Strategies, and a Wikipedia expert. Full bio here:
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