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25.04.17

Wikitribune: The Real Revolution

Posted 25th April 2017

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So, today sees the announcement of Wikitribune, a brand new news site:

Jimmy Wales, the co-founder of Wikipedia, is launching a new online publication which will aim to fight fake news by pairing professional journalists with an army of volunteer community contributors.

Wikitribune plans to pay for the reporters by raising money from a crowdfunding campaign.

Wales intends to cover general issues, such as US and UK politics, through to specialist science and technology.

Those who donate will become supporters, who in turn will have a say in which subjects and story threads the site focuses on. And Wales intends that the community of readers will fact-check and subedit published articles.

Describing Wikitribune as ‘news by the people and for the people,’ Wales said: ‘This will be the first time that professional journalists and citizen journalists will work side-by-side as equals writing stories as they happen, editing them live as they develop, and at all times backed by a community checking and rechecking all facts.'”

I shall leave it to others to ponder whether this style of journalism is a good thing, or even if it will actually work in any way whatsoever. (I find the launch video ridiculously simplistic – there was some bad journalism in the old days, and some great journalism now – but maybe a more nuanced take is impossible when you’re launching something like this.) As ever, I want to concentrate on something else.

Last week, The New York Times published a profile of Uber CEO Travis Kalanick. Here is one of the more alarming claims in the piece:

“For months, Mr. Kalanick had pulled a fast one on Apple by directing his employees to help camouflage the ride-hailing app from Apple’s engineers. The reason? So Apple would not find out that Uber had been secretly identifying and tagging iPhones even after its app had been deleted and the devices erased — a fraud detection maneuver that violated Apple’s privacy guidelines.”

Except that is not how the story originally read. As pointed out by Daring Fireball, the above paragraph (emphasis mine) was originally:

For months, Mr. Kalanick had pulled a fast one on Apple by directing his employees to help camouflage the ride-hailing app from Apple’s engineers. The reason? So Apple would not find out that Uber had secretly been tracking iPhones even after its app had been deleted from the devices, violating Apple’s privacy guidelines.

Read Daring Fireball’s article for the full implications of this – it’s one of the best pieces of tech reporting I’ve read this year. The crucial thing to note is: “identifying and tagging” is an entirely different thing to “tracking”. And not only does it have entirely different implications, but the original use of the word “tracking” may explain why the story became such a big deal in the first place.

Hardly the worst example of a story being changed after publication, of course – check out these examples – but in many ways, the less flashy examples are sometimes the most troubling. Big changes get called out, but smaller changes are invisible. And it’s this lack of transparency which bugs me most about changes made to news stories. It’s a Very Good Thing when an article is updated to correct an inaccuracy – but when that change is done silently, it does nothing to help you trust a publication at all. Errors needs to be acknowledged.

Which leads us back to Wikitribune. As yet we have few details on how the site will work – but they’re already using the word “transparency”, and the following from Jimmy Wales stands out:

“This will be the first time that professional journalists and citizen journalists will work side-by-side as equals writing stories as they happen, editing them live as they develop, and at all times backed by a community checking and rechecking all facts.”

It seems reasonable to assume that just like Wikipedia, each news story will have a “View history” link, detailing each and every change made to the story, and who made it. Like the brilliant project NewsDiffs – but built into the fabric of the site itself. And that really could have a profound impact on the way news is reported.

Maybe Wikitribune’s great revolution will be professional journalists and citizen journalists working together. I’m sceptical, but open to the idea of trying something new. But it also has the chance to inspire a different kind of revolution. By making public the changes made to each news story, it could inspire other sites to do the same by default. One click, and you could see exactly how any news story has developed, any corrections made to the piece, and an editor’s explanation of every single change made to the story through its lifetime.

If other news sites take the right ideas from this, it could bring an unprecedented level of transparency to every news source, not just Wikitribune.

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