TrevorPresiloski
The Dangers of Wikipedia
August 17th, 2011

So, there’s been a bit of a furor on Twitter regarding a recent retraction from the Toronto Star.

Yesterday, an article was posted dealing with the death of Rick Rypien on their website. In it was a quote that was attributed to Mike Gillis describing Rypien as being ‘crazy.’ A rather bold and out of character remark from Gillis, given how much respect and privacy he had afforded Rypien when he was with the Canucks organization. Also something that the local media in Vancouver would have been all over were it actually something that he had said.

Doing some digging, it turns out that the quote in question came from a Rick Rypien’s vandalized Wikipedia article. For those that aren’t familiar with Wikipedia, it’s an online repository of knowledge that anyone can contribute and edit. While there are efforts to make sure that all information on Wikipedia is presented as being factual, there are individuals who come along and vandalize Wiki pages. Stephen Colbert popularized it in a segment a few years back where he implored viewers to go and edit the Wikipedia article on elephants to state that the population had tripled in the past six months. Wiki pages for hot topics or recently deceased individuals are popular targets for vandals and are frequently targeted.

Wikipedia also archives all pages to guard against vandalism, which is how I found the offending quote. For those who are lazy or find Wikipedia confusing, here it is:

ryp-wiki

Another incidence of vandalism, the “nuttier than a fruitcake” bit can also be seen. As you can see, the quotation is word for word the same one that is used in the now edited article, but with the omission of the words “but crazy.”

Michael Woods is the person whose name appears on the byline, so it would appear that it would be he is responsible for it. He also appears to be recently graduated or currently enrolled in post secondary, so you would imagine that the dangers of Wikipedia would have been pounded into his head over and over. I know when I was in undergrad, I was continually told by numerous professors that Wikipedia is unreliable and it shouldn’t be used as the foundation for any serious research.

That isn’t to say that Wikipedia isn’t useful. It’s great as a jumping off point for information and as a collection of relevant news articles for certain topics. I use it quite frequently to get information, but I’m always careful about it. I’ll check the references section at the bottom and try and use the original material rather than the Wikipedia article.

I also find it a little insulting that Woods, who was tasked with writing this article, seemed to be completely oblivious about his topic. The secrecy surrounding Rypien’s personal problems is well documented and to call someone ‘crazy’, especially a very prominent and public figure like Mike Gillis, is insensitive and should’ve raised an alarm bell. This is assuming that Woods had actually done the appropriate research on the topic he was covering. Given the nature of journalism, where tight deadlines reign supreme,this may have been a very bad gaffe on his behalf. That the crazy remark didn’t register as unusual to Woods also shows a disregard towards Rypien’s situation, as apparently he found nothing wrong with the boss calling an employee who is going through a rough patch as ‘crazy.’ Insensitive and speaks to some of the issues I have in a forthcoming blog post.

But suppose Woods missed it. If Woods wasn’t aware that the ‘crazy’ quotation was in there, it speaks to an ignorance of his own work and gives an even lazier impression as to how he approaches his work. Some would say ‘that’s what editors are for’, but editors can’t be expected to check every quotation, every factoid. That’s the writer’s responsibility.

Either way, it’s a really bad situation and I hope that Mr. Woods has learnt a valuable lesson.

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