Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Wikipedia misquotes the dead

Shane Fitzgerald wondered how accountable modern news media are. Do they check facts in a 24/7 news cycle? He got his chance to test the media's accuracy and research methods when French composer Maurice Jarre died on March 28. Within hours of his death, Fitzgerald added to the Wikipedia article on Jarre a quote he thought would be irresistible to obituary writers. Here it is:
  • "One could say my life itself has been one long soundtrack. 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."
He supplied no source or attribution, and the administrators at Wikipedia quickly removed it. Before they did, though, the quote was lifted and appeared in newspapers around the world. So far only one of them, The Guardian, has publicly admitted that its writer copied the quote. Other newspapers have removed the quote but made no apology for the mistake.

This brings up two points: the frequently repeated, too-often-unheard warning about using Wikipedia as a source, and what happens to stories that incorporate inaccurate information. In this case, only one of the newspapers that made the mistake printed a retraction; the others quietly corrected it. What if someone used one of those stories as a source before the correction? The mistake would be carried on, even after it had been fixed. The shadow of Wikipedia is long and dark. And you can quote me.

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