The BBC, Wikipedia, accuracy, speed and me
I had an interesting exchange with someone from the BBC at the RTNDA conference I attended last week. I was on a panel devoted to ethics in digital journalism, and much of the discussion and concern among the audience surrounded user-generated content, specifically user comments.
Toward the end of the discussion, I made the point that people in the audience who were expressing disdain for the practice of inviting in user commenary should realize that this is about more than just controlling trolls. Wikipedia and Google, I said, were built on user input -- small acts of creation by millions of users. It's the 'collective intelligence' meme that has built powerful, new information tools, fundamentally transformed business and made billions of dollars for some on the Web.
I wanted to get us out of the tactical discussion of whether site A or site B should enable or block user comments, and spark thought about the larger implications of a technology that can enable everyone -- volunteers, really -- to collectively create something extremely valuable at virtually no cost.
But for people in the room who have devoted their lives to large acts of creation, our labor-intensive narrative journalism, such musings were lost, I think, in the chatter.
Enter the BBC.
As the discussion ended, a couple of BBC folks approached me. One expressed astonishment. Was I promoting the use of Wikipedia as a source for reporters? She spoke like a colonial hunter questioning natives in the bush of Africa.
"Yes," I said. "It can be an efficient place for journalists to jumpstart their research." The discussion never got much farther than that. I guess I was the pray. She opened up with all guns. "The BBC would never use Wikipedia," she intoned in a magesterial voice.
Actually, suggesting that journalists use Wikipedia wasn't my point, of course. I do think Wikipedia is a fine place for reporters to go to start researching background or probe for links and leads on a story. In some cases it might even be a source you could quote. (Why not quote Wikipedia on the definition of blogosphere, or social networking for instance?) As a first stop in digital research, Wikipedia is no better or worse than typing in a search query in Google or Yahoo! News. Wikipedians have introduced footnotes that link each assertion of fact to an outside source. There are bibliographies and lists of URLs to authoritative sites for further research. It's a fine shortcut, if not a product you would cite without verificaiton elsewhere. (Although a study in the journal Nature found it was, on average, as accurate as the Encyclopaedia Britannica.)
What I'd wanted to highlight for the audience was that clearly something of great value had been created solely by users. Wikipedia shows up as the top result or near the top on countless Google searches, which means people find it useful and valuable, because Google itself is the product of the links (or 'votes' if you will) that countless people make between content on the Web. I had hoped to encourage Ms. BBC and others to think more expansively about how inviting in user content might contribute to a greater, deeper understanding of news than we journalists can do all alone.
But our conversation after the panel never got that far. Once accuracy vs. speed came up the gulf between America and Britain yawned wider than the Atlantic itself. I brought up a McKinsey study which found that most online news consumers base their choice of news source on convenience, comprehensiveness or timeliness, not quality. That's not an argument against accuracy, it's an argument for transparency.
The Associated Press teaches that our first duty as journalists is to report a story accurately. But we must also be fast. That builds credibility with our audience. If some facts are unknown as a deadline approaches, we can be transparent about what we don't know. And if Wikipedia can help speed a reporter's way to the truth, so be it.
Ms. BBC was unimpressed. "Perhaps Americans are less concerned with accuracy than Britons," she sniffed. "Because Britons go to Sky News for speed. They come to the BBC for accuracy." I pointed out that The Dallas Morning News hadn't been around for 150 years by giving short shrift to accuracy. But by this point the hunter had had her kill. She wasn't listening to the trophy's dying gasps.
I find it hard to believe that www.wikipedia.com isn't secretly clicked by reporters and editors within the august halls of the BBC, nevermind any such prohibition. And certainly they're one of the most advanced mainstream news organizations when it comes to using social tools and inviting in user commentary. But the connection between those small actions from so many of their users and the powerful results that could accrue, as evidenced by Wikipedia, Google, Flickr, You Tube, Photosynth, Digg or you-name-your-favorite Web 2.0 platform, is evidently not appreciated by everyone there.