Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Things That Make You Go, 'Hmmmmm'

Associated Press wrote an article on the accuracy of Internet sources.

The credentials of the people authoring grassroots Web journals and a committee-written encyclopedia called Wikipedia are often unclear. Nevertheless, some Internet users believe that such resources can collectively portray events more accurately than any single gatekeeper.

I come down on both sides of that. I'm just a shade above an amateur (I have an undergrad history and English degree), yet I run two Web sites (slavenorth.com and etymonline.com) that are often used in research projects and have been recommended by professors, and even cited in legal briefs in court cases. In everything I publish online, I work as hard as I can to be accurate, and if someone points out an error (as MDL has here on a number of occasions), I correct it.

Yet I'm deeply suspicious of Web information generally, and if I'm going to use a fact off the Internet, I need a confirmation from a reputable published source before I print it under my name. In fact, the Web sites I created were done in large part to dispell or correct a flood of bad information I found online.

Robert McHenry, former editor in chief of Encyclopædia Britannica, published an excellent article at Tech Central Station last month, dealing with Wikipedia, the amateur-written encyclopedia.

As of November 2004, according to the project's own counts, nearly 30,000 contributors had written about 1.1 million articles in 109 different languages, though some of these language versions of Wikipedia remained quite small. The Manx Gaelic version, for example, had only 3 articles, the Guarani 10, and the Klingon (yes, from the Star Trek series) 48.

McHenry turned to a topic he happened to know a bit about, Alexander Hamilton, and found a raft of problems in the Wikipedia entry, from over-simplified facts to twisted interpretations. Anyone writing an undergraduate term paper based on this entry shouldn't expect an "A."

The AP article sounded the warning. Just because it's online diesn't mean it's so:

Young people may know that just because information is plentiful online doesn't mean it's reliable, yet their perceptions of what's trustworthy frequently differ from their elders' - sparking a larger debate about what constitutes truth in the Internet age.

So I was amused today to find the AP correcting itself on this very story:

Clarification: Reliable sources story

Eds: Members who used BC-Always Online-Reliable Sources, sent Nov. 30 in advance for Dec. 8 and retransmitted on Dec. 7, may wish to use the following, which clarifies an event referred to in a quotation.

NEW YORK (AP) — In a Dec. 7 story, The Associated Press quoted Paul Saffo, of the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, Calif., saying that audience members "actually ducked when the train came out on the screen" in the 1903 film "The Great Train Robbery."

The story should have explained that this sequence was in "Arrival of a Train at la Ciotat," an 1895 French movie. "The Great Train Robbery" had a pistol-shooting sequence in which audiences were said to have ducked for cover.

Audience reactions to the films have been widely cited in stories over the decades, but some scholars believe the reactions were exaggerated to portray early cinema audiences as less sophisticated.

Actually, that's a correction and a clarification. But what's interesting in this is that, while I can find the original AP "always online" story at a dozen sites on the Internet, I can't find the correction anywhere online.