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The Wikinewsie Group/Newsletter/3/The Tao of Wikinews

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The Tao of Wikinews

An essay by Pi zero.

In this essay, I'll try to explain how the nature of news shapes the way English Wikinews works. Alas, this essay has the sort of title that can't possibly be lived up to; but I do hope, along the way, to give some sense of what news is, and what it means to be a news wiki.


At its simplest essence, news is reportage that is vetted —for, especially, neutrality and accuracy— before being published.

Several years ago I saw a discussion on an academic cable channel (out of some US university, and I dearly wish I'd noted down the details so I could properly refer back to it later), where they'd gathered a panel of rising young stars in journalism to discuss the future of journalism. The panelists all said much the same thing, each in their own way: the challenge for journalism going forward is not to provide information, because there's an absurd amount of information available on the internet now, most of it of unknown reliability, but to match up incoming information with the reputation of the journalist.

In other words, news is reportage that is vetted before being published. It struck me at the time, because it so perfectly fit with the Wikinewsie vision of the future of journalism we are striving for.

This, by the way, is why Wikinews is still around. A wiki thrives on idealism, because idealism drives volunteerism. And old-school journalism —vetted for neutrality and accuracy before it's published— is something that, once people start thinking about it, they can become passionate for. We have (to be honest) taken a good deal of flak over the years from some parties within the wikimedian community; so the fact that we are still here is evidence of an abiding passion for news.

It's also worth noting that journalists document events for both people at the time and posterity. An archived news article is a precious permanent historical record of what an event looked like when it happened — so that preserving history becomes part of the motivating journalistic ideal.


The ideals of journalism and wikimedia clearly ought to complement each other — the journalistic ideal of reportage achieving neutrality and accuracy through vetting before publication, and the wikimedian ideal of achieving neutrality and accuracy through a nonprofit project anyone can contribute to. The wikimedian projects, for their part, have received much criticism for lack of vetting. Journalism has received much criticism for loss of neutrality, and loss of objective content, as its traditional economic model fails in the electronic age, and various commercial and ideological concerns reach for exclusive control of the available news outlets.

So, how do we fuse the journalistic and wikimedian ideals? (English Wikinewsies emphasize that the name of our project is Wikinews with a lower-case n — not two words pushed together, but a single word made by fusing the two into one. This is a philosophical point, that we aren't just a wiki that does news, but a fusion of the ideals of journalism and open wikis into a new thing that is wholly itself.)

One thing that can't work for news, evidently, is the workflow model of Wikipedia. The Wikipedian model is a simple, elegant way to gradually grow an encyclopedia over time. The basic workflow is: someone makes an edit, based on what they believe should be said; and repeat. Everything else about the workings of Wikipedia is in the social rules by which the Wikipedian community work together, and much of that gets quite complicated, but it still all boils down to an individual editing the content to say what they think it should say.

This simple core Wikipedian workflow is wonderfully successful at building an encyclopedia. (Room for improvement? Definitely. I still think it's wonderful how well it does work.) But it should also be immediately clear that the output of this Wikipedian workflow is inherently not news. There is neither an enforced vetting process before publication, nor even a shared ethic by the community that they should be making a huge personal effort to be absolutely sure their contributions are right before publishing. Quite the contrary: contributors are encouraged to be bold and trust that when they err, others will correct. The Wikipedian model makes intensive use of the availability of unlimited time to improve any given article. Consequently, Wikipedia is intrinsically incapable of producing a news article.

English Wikinews does have an enforced rigorous review process for publication (enforced via the FlaggedRevs wiki extension). Enforced review is, it seems to me, a natural step as a Wikinews project climbs up the ladder of reputation, but it is a step that has its time. English Wikinews took the step about four years ago, and our reputation has risen far because of it — but it's also an expensive step in volunteer labor, and an important part of our long-term project development is focused on means to aid review. Reducing the expense would not only allow us to expand, but would also give smaller developing Wikinewses the option of taking the step sooner.

There's been, btw, some disagreement amongst anti-Wikinews agitators about whether or not English Wikinews "is a wiki". On one hand, they want to claim we aren't a wiki, so they can accuse us of violating the spirit of wikimedia. Since the wikimedian spirit is woven inextricably into the fabric of our project, this claim has to start with a narrow technical definition of "wiki" as something that works exactly the way Wikipedia does (an unwise choice of definition even from the Wikipedian perspective, since it prevents the observer from looking for ways to improve Wikipedia). On the other hand, they want to claim we can't produce quality news because we're a wiki and therefore inherently unreliable, which (if one wants their position to be consistent) would require them either to broaden their definition of "wiki" or counter-factually claim that we have the same workflow as Wikipedia. (See also my remarks on fact-based worldview in my essay last month.)


The lifecycle of an English Wikinews article involves most of the major elements of project policy/practice

(1) The reporter chooses a story to write about. This could be either synthesis —that is, based on multiple reports from other news sites— or original reporting. The story has to have a focus that is newsworthy — that is, the focus must be something specific, relevant, and fresh (fresh meaning it just recently happened).

A lot of policy went by in that one step, though it's meant to be fairly intuitive. Newsworthiness determines what we can cover at all, so we've put a lot of thought into it: what it means to be relevant (we're entirely open to local news stories, but there's a reasonable limit on how local, and news relevance involves more than counting heads), what it means to be fresh (which involves a lot of factors, including time since the event, whether and what kind of original content our article has, and later developments in the story), and even what it means to be specific (consider the difference between an earthquake, continental drift, and a new study about continental drift).

(2) The reporter writes their article. To do this, they need to know, at least, how to report factually, how to use sources without plagiarizing them, how to organize a news article, and how to document where they got their information from. It's also very helpful if they know how to technically lay out an English Wikinews article (basically, what templates to use and how to use them).

That's another big bite of policy. Reporting factually has to do both with getting facts right, and with attributing claims and opinions to someone else rather than presenting them to the reader as if they were certain. (Hence, we don't say something is shameful, but may report neutrally that a certain politician said so; we don't say someone accused of a crime actually did it, but may report factually that the police allege they did.) Using sources without copying from them is a valuable skill that an awful lot of people simply have never had explained clearly and simply. Synthesis reporting requires everything to be reliably sourced, and requires two independent sources confirming the focal event.

Documenting original reporting takes a lot of work, because we need to verify the information in the article against that documentation. Before doing original reporting, the reporter has to plan ahead for documentation, for example handwritten notes and audio or video recordings. The rule of thumb is, original reporters should provide lots more than "needed" to verify the article; context helps with corroboration and reviewer understanding even though the fact that you had trouble finding a parking spot at the stadium isn't mentioned in the article.

(3) The reporter submits their article for review. This is both key to our reliability, and the most expensive drain on our volunteer labor.

Nobody is allowed to self-publish. Their work has be vetted by someone else. For best results, the reporter should have vetted their own work thoroughly before submitting; but even with veteran reporters, people tend to overlook mistakes they've made themselves, which is (in part) why even the most trusted veteran Wikinewsies aren't allowed to publish their own work. As for new contributors — reviewing their work is much harder, both because they make more mistakes, and because they sometimes make a wide variety of mistakes an experienced Wikinewsie would realistically never make because they know better. We have no reason to assume an unknown newcomer is even acting in good faith; our principle is never assume.

(4) A reviewer, uninvolved with writing the article, chooses to review the article.

The point is for review to be performed by an independent reviewer — someone who isn't a coauthor. Consequently, while the reviewer can do some copyediting of the article to help it reach publishable state, they can't do too much — because if they did, they'd become a coauthor, and would then have to disqualify themselves from publishing.

At this point, the reviewer needs a commanding knowledge of all our standards and practices. Some things can be judged before looking at the sources or documentation (style, newsworthiness, some aspects of neutrality), but the heart of the review process is the source-check. Every fact in the article is compared to the sources of information. Every fact is considered against the reliability and possible bias of where it came from, whether it needs to be attributed, whether it's stated in a way that doesn't plagiarize from a source. Source-checking original research can be even more challenging, because of the many forms documentation can take, and the peculiar properties of each.

It matters for review whether we know the reporter. Anyone on the internet can write and submit an article, yes, and that's important, but for advanced reportage they're going to have to earn community trust. Contributors aren't anonymous on English Wikinews — not that their real-world identities are necessarily made public (though most are), but that we're centrally concerned with getting to know each other as individuals. This distinguishing of individuals is part of the nature of news: remember, the challenge identified by that panel on the future of journalism was matching up information with the reputation of the journalist; English Wikinews has its reputation as a site, but relies in turn on individual Wikinewsies accumulating their own reputations with our community.

When it isn't practical, or isn't possible, for the reviewer to fix the article's problems during review, they assess the article not ready for publication. Along with a not-ready review comes reviewer comments, often quite detailed, explaining what problems were encountered and, when possible, what needs to be done to fix them. Writing review comments is a separate aspect of review, as difficult and as important to the project as source-checking because it affects both the future of the article, amd what the reporter can learn from the experience.

(5a) If an article is published, significant changes to it can only be made for 24 hours after publication. After that, only insigificant edits can be made; if there's an actual error, instead of fixing it, we put a correction notice on the article. It's a major value of our archive that, in contrast to mainstream media, our articles are a permanent, free, fully disclosed record of history. Mainstream media routinely replace their articles at the time, burying their mistakes (and often burying part of the information they had been offering to readers), and then at some point move their archived articles beyind paywalls. Our articles remain freely available, their histories are publicly visible, and if we make a mistake that isn't caught at the time we explicitly achknowledge it and preserve the original form of the article.

(5b) If an article ultimately fails to reach publication, eventually it is tagged abandoned, and deleted (except for a few that are preserved in userspace). This too is important for us, because it prevents us from being used as a blog of unpublished materials.

Social behavior[edit]

Though all this, I've said very little about rules of social behavior.

There is a distinct social contrast with English Wikipedia. English Wikipedia is intensely concerned, in its day-to-day operations, with getting lots of complete strangers, with sharply differing perspectives and opinions, to work together without overtly fighting; technical matters are expected to work themselves out in the long run if people can continue to work together in the short run.

Yet the day-to-day concerns of English Wikinews are technical, not social, and things don't usually boil over between Wikinewsies. Why? Three partial answers come to mind.

  • There isn't time for a long argument about an article, and therefore not time for such an argument to escalate much. If the article isn't published, it goes stale; if it is published, it enters its archival phase; either way, there's nothing much left to argue about.
  • If a reporter isn't a team player —if they treat reviewers as an annoyance or an enemy— they do not prosper on English Wikinews. The review system only works well when reporters and reviewers are close allies in the struggle to publish high-quality news. Those who stay to become veteran Wikinewsies are team players.
  • New contributors don't remain strangers on English Wikinews. As mentioned earlier, we place great importance on getting to know them. Troublemakers don't readily go unnoticed.

All about news[edit]

In following the path of an article through its lifecycle on English Wikinews, I've touched lightly on most major elements of English Wikinews policy and practice. I've tried to show what it means to be a news wiki, sharing the ideals and fusing the principles of both journalism and wikimedia; and in doing so, I've tried to show how everything about our project is shaped by the needs of being a news wiki.