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Issue for March 2015

Is Wikipedia a Reliable Source? Part II

Posted on Monday, March 30, 2015 at 11:43 AM

Editors find it convenient. But can it be trusted?

By William Dunkerley

--"We use it for background..."

--"It's a great starting point for research..."

--"I personally only use Wikipedia as a jumping off point..."

--"I use Wikipedia primarily for a quick check on information..."

These are a few comments last month's survey elicited from editors. Admittedly, I use Wikipedia a lot myself, too.

I remember some years ago offering statistics I picked up from Wikipedia while making a point to my physician. She responded, "Where did you get that from?" She sneered when I said Wikipedia. At the time I thought to myself that this doctor was behind the times in ignoring such a great new information resource as Wikipedia.

But after preparing this two-part series for Editors Only, I've learned to use Wikipedia with a great deal more caution. I don't trust it as much as I used to.

A fundamental premise of Wikipedia is that anyone can become an editor at will. Any such editor can enter new information or change text that is already there. Supposedly, through an ongoing process of editing and reediting by various people, a better encyclopedia article will eventuate.

That is probably a good premise if all the editors are doing is polishing the language so that it can be better understood by readers. Beyond that, the process can be problematic. This is particularly true when large segments of the editing population see facts differently.

Laying Down the Editorial Law

To try to keep things on the up-and-up, Wikipedia has three basic article policies: (1) no original research, (2) neutral point of view, and (3) verifiability.

"No original research" means that an editor can not enter information that comes from his or her own expertise or personal experience. So, for instance, if paleontologists discover bones from a prehistoric animal, they can't report that in Wikipedia themselves. But if a local newspaper comes over to do a story on the discovery, it becomes legitimate fodder for inclusion.

There are pros and cons to this approach. On one hand, it will mitigate against a self-appointed "paleontologist" claiming a scientific discovery when in reality all he found were some cow bones. On the other hand, it means that legitimate scientific information is subjected to the non-expert editorial handling of a local newspaper. None of the Wiki material is supposed to come from a primary source.

"Neutral point of view" sounds like a reasonable concept, too. An encyclopedia is no place for advocacy or proselytization. But in portraying a neutral point of view, Wikipedia editors are left to consider only point-of-view inputs that have already been published.

A recent example comes from Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server during her tenure as Secretary of State. Most media piled on Clinton, questioning whether her server arrangement was proper. A Wikipedia article on the topic said, "The scandal was the subject of the 'cold open' on Saturday Night Live." Note the use of the word "scandal." Those who are at political odds with Clinton certainly regard the issue as a scandal. Her supporters consider it an insignificant issue that is being overblown.

Then an editor other than the one who wrote the scandal statement changed the word "scandal" to "controversy." That seems to me a successful application of the neutral point of view rule, even though the preponderance of media coverage appeared to play to one point of view. Neutral is neutral, and preponderance of one particular point of view should not add up to neutrality.

A different example shows an unsuccessful application. In an article discussing the start of the still-ongoing Ukrainian crisis, one editor wrote, "Many protesters joined because of the violent dispersal of protesters [by the police]." Some contend, however, that it was the protestors who were violent and that the police were attempting to restore order. So those are two opposing points of view. A second editor changed the term "violent dispersal" to "forceful dispersal." That would seem to be descriptive without taking sides. But that edit was reversed by another editor, who called the "forceful dispersal" term "POV pushing, weasel-ing." The editor trying to introduce neutrality apparently gave up at that point.

I've noticed that there is a cadre of devoted Wikipedia editors. They do not seem to be subject matter experts, but they have gained expertise in the extremely complex Wikipedia rules and guidelines. They've developed their own culture and jargon. Some seem to have an earnest interest in improving the content, others appear to enjoy simply playing the role of Wiki-rule cops, and yet others use their extensive familiarity with Wiki rules to protect their own favored point of view from corrections attempted by novice editors. The deck is stacked against anyone who has not made Wiki editing a special avocation.

"Verifiability" is a concept that is essential for implementing the prohibition against primary source material (no original research). On this subject, writing in Technology Review (October 20, 2008), Simson Garfinkel explained: "Verifiability is really an appeal to authority -- not the authority of truth, but the authority of other publications. Any other publication, really. These days, information that's added to Wikipedia without an appropriate reference is likely to be slapped with a 'citation needed' badge by one of Wikipedia's self-appointed editors. Remove the badge and somebody else will put it back. Keep it up and you might find yourself face to face with another kind of authority -- one of the English-language Wikipedia's 1,500 administrators, who have the ability to place increasingly restrictive protections on contentious pages when the policies are ignored."

A Different Original Focus

My two articles about Wikipedia actually started off being developed as a series on reader-generated content. But I came to find so much that was disturbing about Wikipedia that I changed the focus.

The tipping point occurred when I wrote to the Wikimedia Foundation. (That's the organization that hosts Wikipedia and raises funds for it.) I invited their representative to share some information on their experience with audience-generated content.

The response I got said, "Unfortunately, we cannot accommodate your request due to current time constraints." It was signed by "Dasha Burns, On behalf of the Wikimedia Foundation."

So I had written to Wikimedia but received a response not from the organization, but by someone answering on its behalf. I checked the domain name in Burns' email address. It is "minassianmedia.com."

Out of curiosity I went to the website at that address. All that's there is a business card–type page with the company name, address, and phone number, plus the descriptive line "Content + Communications."

Still curious, I googled the company name. That brought me to a website of The Tribeca Disruptive Innovation Awards. It identified the president of Minassian Media as Craig Minassian.

And when I googled his name, what did I find? He is the chief communications officer at the Clinton Foundation. I wondered if this meant the Clinton family has Wikipedia under its thumb.

All this googling was being done around the time the NBC Brian Williams story was a big item. He had been caught exaggerating the danger he was in while visiting a world trouble spot.

I remembered that Hillary Clinton had been caught in a similar imbroglio over her visit to Bosnia, claiming to have exited her airplane amidst enemy fire. Video from that event proved her story to be false, like Williams' story.

How did the Wikipedia coverage of these similar predicaments compare, I wondered. Here's what I found: The Williams fib story takes almost 1,000 words to tell. It's full of clickable links that take you to other sites to substantiate the story.

Hillary's fib is covered in just 40 words and seems to really gloss over the fabrication. This Wikipedia entry has just one footnote. It's to a book published five years ago, and there's no clickable link to any content other than the authors' names and the page numbers, not even the name of the book. So it's like a dead-end reference.

Then I thought that the great difference in the fib coverage might be a result of the freshness of the Williams story, whereas Hillary's became news back around 2008. So I checked out another famous fib. It was that of Dan Rathers when he touted a false story about George W. Bush's questionable National Guard service. This was from 2004, older than Hillary's story. It got around 1,000 words in Wikipedia. So the short treatment of Hillary's fib seems to have nothing to do with how far back it was.

Certainly this is not an exhaustive examination of Wikipedia manipulation. But it sure looks suspicious.

Some Advice

In closing, here are a couple of tips you can use to gain insight into whether a Wikipedia article is reliable:

--First look on the "View History" page associated with the article. There you can see all the editing that's been done to the article in the past. Does it look like the edits were done to improve the article? Or do you see dueling editors trying to push one version of the facts over another?

--Also look on the article's Talk Page. There you'll see discussions that have gone on between various editors who have an active concern about the article. Do they seem to know what they are talking about? Or is the discussion merely at the level of enforcing Wiki editorial policies and rules, irrespective of whatever the truth may be? Some of those discussions that I've seen have lost touch with what the article's all about. That's a bad sign.

Most of all, though, my advice for safely using Wikipedia is this:

Caveat lector -- let the reader beware!

William Dunkerley is principal of William Dunkerley Publishing Consultants, www.publishinghelp.com.

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The Art of Teaching Others to Write

Posted on Monday, March 30, 2015 at 11:40 AM

A review of Marjorie Frank's classic, If You're Trying to Teach Kids How to Write, You've Gotta Have this Book!

By Peter Jacobi

Back in 1979, Marjorie Frank, a teacher of writing, wrote a book, If You're Trying to Teach Kids How to Write, You've Gotta Have This Book! She revised it in 1995, and it is still around thanks to Incentive Publications in Nashville, Tennessee.

Maybe your reaction to this, in case you haven't previously come across the book, is, "So what? My job doesn't call for me to teach children, and I'm not a child but a seasoned veteran of the writing/editing profession. I have no need for such a book. What's more, I don't have any children in my home to benefit from Dad's or Mom's writing lessons. They're all grown up."

Well, OK. However, I'm telling you there's a world of information and inspiration in Marjorie Frank's You've Gotta Have This Book! I can't say you "gotta," but there are benefits from reading it and accepting the techniques and advice generously offered. The ideas she's thought up and/or gathered are huge in number and, often, amount to delicious food for your thought.

What It Means to Teach Writers

Early on, Frank addresses a central question: "What does it mean to teach writers?" Surprisingly, part of her answer says, "I doubt that any person can actually TEACH another to write." Huh? She's written a book on how to teach something you can't teach? No, she hasn't. Note the rest of her sentence; it goes this way: "As teachers, we can only..." Following those three dots, she provides a list. "As teachers, we can only...

"...unleash the forces of expression.
"...awaken sensitivities to the world, to selves, and others.
"...prod awarenesses of feelings, ideas, sensations.
"...offer forms for combining words and putting ideas together.
"...expose and demonstrate a process for gathering, organizing, and expressing those ideas.
"...show them how to use tools for saying things clearly.
"...consistently expose them to good, effective, interesting writing."

That is a darn good list of what we, as editors or teachers, need to do for and with our writers, to give them purpose for writing, to merge technique with content in the process of writing. Come to think of it, it's a darn good list for me (and you) to remind myself (yourself) why I (you) bother to write. The list is reason oriented and potentially most valuable in forging a writer's path from assignment to accomplishment, from getting started to winding up. And let me assure you, Marjorie Frank doesn't just give you a list like that; she follows through with explanations.

Establishing a Writing-Friendly Environment

She is concerned about the environment in which writers write. As teacher of children, her immediate goal, of course, is to free the classroom from unnecessary tension. I say, your place of work, whether an actual office or a virtual one, should be as tension free as possible. Frank suggests that you share your own excitement about writing, that you openly respect the written word, that you remove obstacles to writing (competition, comparison, judgment, over-analysis, etc.), that you encourage carefree inventiveness, that you provide directions that challenge, that you make a way to share writing.

The process of writing gets considerable attention. "Writing is a thinking and doing process," she tells us, "a process with many phases, all of them related and intertwined. It is one of those processes that is a vital tool for life. If students are to use this tool with dexterity, they need to learn an approach to the whole process that can be applied over and over again whenever they write."

The Four Stages of Writing

Frank divides the writing process into four kinds of stages: "Romance Stages" (motivation and collecting impressions), "Draft Stages" (organizing and the rough draft), "Response-Revision Stages" (author's review, sharing for response, editing and revising, and the mechanics check), and "Back-to-Romance Stages" (polishing and presenting). She thoroughly explores them all and even adds "ifs, ands, and buts" to her rundown, "cautions, recommendations, and elaborations about the use of the plan that are just as important to its workings."

She argues that all writing is creative because to write is to create. But she's also on the side of those in our profession who preach the importance of creative writing, writing that compels attention for the ways it teases or excites, making adroit use of the language and the gathered information, how the what is delivered to the reader.

"Originality ... creativity ... whatever you call it ... goes hand in hand with the technical skills of writing," Frank argues. "Creative thinking is a component of most writing skills. And it takes technical skills to be able to bring a creative idea to life in words." So, she adds, "the tools are not the writing.... It is the way the tools are used by the writer that makes the message clear or powerful. Teachers and students must take care not to confuse the tools with the writing."

I'm just skimming the surface of what You Gotta Have This Book! includes. There's a treasure chest of counsel in its 250 pages. My belief is you can benefit from reading and using it. Don't be frightened off by the presence of "Kids" in the book's title. For the sake of learning, accept that you and your writers are kids, and no disparagement meant.

Peter P. Jacobi is a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. He is a writing and editing consultant for numerous associations and magazines, speech coach, and workshop leader for various institutions and corporations. He can be reached at 812-334-0063.

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The Fog Index

Posted on Monday, March 30, 2015 at 11:37 AM

Clearing up the Fog in a ScientificAmerican.com excerpt.

This month's Fog excerpt comes from a March 17 ScientificAmerican.com article ("Memories May Not Live in Neurons' Synapses" by Roni Jacobson). Here's the sample text:

"As intangible as they may seem, memories have a firm biological basis. According to textbook neuroscience, they form when neighboring brain cells send chemical communications across the synapses, or junctions, that connect them. Each time a memory is recalled, the connection is reactivated and strengthened. The idea that synapses store memories has dominated neuroscience for more than a century, but a new study by scientists at the University of California, Los Angeles, may fundamentally upend it: instead memories may reside inside brain cells. If supported, the work could have major implications for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a condition marked by painfully vivid and intrusive memories."
--Word count: 108 words
--Average sentence length: 22 words (12, 21, 12, 38, 25 words)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 20 percent (22/108 words)
--Fog Index: (22+20)*.4 = 16 (no rounding)

We need to cut at least five points from the Fog score to land within the ideal range. The challenge here, of course, is that we're dealing with scientific text. We want to cut through Fog without dumbing it down too much. There's also not much we can do about the many instances of the longer word "memory," the article's subject. Let's see what we can do here.

"As intangible as they may seem, memories have a firm biological basis. According to textbook neuroscience, they form when neighboring brain cells send chemical messages across the synapses, or junctions, that connect them. Each time a memory is recalled, that junction is revived and strengthened. The idea that synapses store memories has ruled neuroscience for over a hundred years, but a new UCLA study may fundamentally upend it. Instead memories may reside inside brain cells. If supported, the work could affect future treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), an illness marked by painfully vivid and intrusive memories."

--Word count: 97 words
--Average sentence length: 16 words (12, 21, 12, 23, 7, 22 words)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 14 percent (14/97 words)
--Fog Index: (16+14)*.4 = 12 (no rounding)

We were able to cut the Fog score by 4 points, or 25 percecnt. This is a rare case where we weren't easily able to get a score below 12. We did reduce sentence length and longer words by a hefty 6 points each. In the end, though, we didn't want to replace words needlessly or disrupt flow in the name of shaving off an extra point or two.

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Magazine Audiences on the Rise

Posted on Monday, March 30, 2015 at 11:35 AM

In the news: New numbers from MPA show audience growth for consumer magazines.

Good news for magazines: according to the latest numbers from MPA for the February 2014 through February 2015 period, total consumer magazine audience is up 12.6 percent. The market segments that saw the biggest growth were video and mobile audiences.

Which specific consumer titles have the largest audiences? According to MediaPost's roundup, ESPN the Magazine (92.8 million), People (85 million), and Better Homes and Gardens (49.1 million). Read more about the latest audience data here.

Also Notable

Print Newspapers as Luxury Goods?

Last week, The Atlantic questioned the idea of pricing print newspaper editions as luxury goods. Writes Adrienne LaFrance, "The infrastructure required to make a physical newspaper -- printing presses, delivery trucks -- isn't just expensive, it's exorbitant at a time when online-only competitors don't have the same set of financial constraints. Readers are migrating away from print anyway. And though print ad sales continue to dwarf their online and mobile counterparts, revenue from print is still declining." Tempering this bleak outlook for print editions is Jonah Peretti, CEO of BuzzFeed, who cautions against abandoning a print edition prematurely and alienating longtime subscribers. Instead, he suggests raising print edition prices to expedite a transition toward digital. Read more here.

Current State of Netflix Magazine Models

In a March 23 piece, PBS MediaShift interviewed executives from Readly and Magzter, two companies developing Netflix-like magazine subscription models. Unlike Next Issue, powered by the major magazine publishing houses, these enterprises are zeroing in on more niche audiences. Read the discussions here.

Millenials and Content Consumption

In a March 17 Folio: piece, Michael Rondon discusses how millenials are consuming content, citing a recent study by the Media Insight Project. According to a survey, Facebook is still a major source of information for younger adults; in fact, it is the leading source of information for many subjects, including pop culture, social issues, and local news. Perhaps most noteworthy were the study's findings regarding millenials and paid content. According to Rondon, "a majority of millenials paid for content or accessed paid content using someone else's subscription -- that willingness to pay doesn't mean they agree [with] the practice though." Still, however, younger readers tended to favor paying for print content over digital. Read more here.

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