Maurice Jarre: The Unsung Hero of the Wikipedia Wary
Here We Go Again
Yeah, yeah, yeah...We all know the drill. Wikipedia articles can be and are written and edited by anyone. Even elementary school children should be able, under the tutelage of a good librarian, to alert you to the dangers of using Wikipedia for research. Most of us will admit, with a bit of chagrin, that we do use it to get background knowledge on a subject, but as serious academics, we will never, ever cite it. We will always seek out primary or more reliable sources.
But, do we? Does anyone? Or are we writers a sub-populace more focused on the appearance of academic integrity than we are in practice?
And if educators, journalists, writers, and researchers cheat now and again, what then to expect from dabblers and the part-time expert with something to share?
Let us examine the case of journalists worldwide who failed the test of Dublin University student, Shane Fitzgerald.
Journalists, I say?
One would like to believe that all jobs require us to behave in a manner that places right above wrong. For sure, there are some professions that outline ethics right in the job description. According to Wikipedia, the code of ethics that applies to journalism describes qualities such as "truthfulness, accuracy, objectivity, fairness and public accountability." Most people select their sources of news based on whether they believe these are attributes to which their agency of choice adheres. Oh, and of course whether the political bias of the organization suits our own - but that's a topic for a different hub.
The argument here isn't whether Wikipedia is worthy, or awful, or wrong. It is whether those we hold to the highest standards in truth-seeking should use it. And if they do, what are the parameters that must apply to such use? I believe it does matter a great deal whether and how those who report the news use sources such as Wikipedia. The public contract is implicit, and the permanent record any good journalist will leave is married to our future understanding of ourselves, our culture, and our history.
The Wikipedia Test
It all begins with a college student who wanted to lay out a test for journalists. The essential question: Do journalists always fact check their sources?
The perfect storm came for Shane Fitzgerald upon the death of French composer and conductor Maurice Jarre. Fitzgerald had a small window of time which allowed him to edit the Wikipedia article on Jarre. He added this quote to the article, which he attributed to the composer.
"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." (Student Hoax's World)
A profound quote for a composer to make upon reflection of his life. Journalists worldwide picked it up on the 30 yard line and ran like heck....and never looked back. Few bothered to fact check the quote, a skill any elementary student will tell you is essential to identifying credible source material.
Student Hoaxes World's Media on Wikipedia
- Student hoaxes world's media on Wikipedia - Technology & science - Tech and gadgets | NBC News
When Dublin university student Shane Fitzgerald posted a poetic but phony quote on Wikipedia, he said he was testing how our globalized, increasingly Internet-dependent media was upholding accuracy and accountability in an age of instant news.
Wikipedia: Common Sense 101
When I give my middle school students the reading assignment, "Student Hoaxes World's Media" and ask them to define what went wrong, most students place the blame on Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald, they claim, should never have meddled with the Jarre article. I have to lead them, very directly, to the conclusion that perhaps the journalists had some role in the spread of this misinformation.
This makes two things very clear. We live in a society where it is increasingly more common for people to blame others rather than claim ownership for their mistakes. And, if we participate in the global sharing of information, it is indeed our obligation to do so ethically.
It should shock us to learn that very few news organizations retracted or reprinted Jarre's obituary without the misquote. Forevermore, Maurice Jarre will be known for having voiced such prophetic words. This quote, as they say, will go down in history.
The Reliability of Information
The thing is, the Jarre quote is information that got released to the general public that was just plain wrong. One might say, ah, well - Maurice Jarre who? It doesn't really matter in the larger schemata.
Additionally, we can evaluate Wikipedia alongside Britannica and other established publications which also have similar amounts of inaccuracies. In 2005, the journal Nature peer reviewed Science articles in both Wikipedia and Britannica. According to Nature, "The exercise revealed numerous errors in both encyclopaedias, but among 42 entries tested, the difference in accuracy was not particularly great: the average science entry in Wikipedia contained around four inaccuracies; Britannica, about three."
This begs the question, where do these inaccuracies come from and how do we derail their propagation?
In an era when 8% of adults get their news via twitter (Twitter News Consumers) and 30% get it from Facebook (The Role of News on Facebook), do most of us even care?
Who is to Blame?
If the demand for high quality, accurate information is at an ebb, it will follow that motivation to produce it will also be low. It is time to state the obvious: consumers of information are willing to accept a less than stellar product, and the quality of our news and information continues to disintegrate.
Fitzgerald revealed the flaws in a system that requires news to be produced almost simultaneous to the event it is recording. But, even more so, he illuminated our willingness to accept less than from our news and information sources.
You can quote me on that.
Giles, J. (2005). Internet encyclopaedias go head to head. Nature, 438(7070), 900+. Retrieved from http://go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?id=GALE%7CA185466229&v=2.1&u=nysl_sc_lauren&it=r&p=GPS&sw=w&asid=d25b90f05f2be2465b045021925d09f9