Thursday, December 08, 2005

Information is free, expensive, valuable, and destructive

I read two very interesting articles late last week, the first via ALDaily and the second from Cliopatria. Reason has a story by Matt Welch about the failures of mainstream media outlets to report responsibly on conditions during Hurricane Katrina. Others have pointed to failures along these lines before, especially the exaggerated and imagined incidents of violence and lawlessness that allegedly plagued New Orleans and evacuation sites. Welch doesn't discuss the role that race may have played in the creation, spread, and credibility of these false stories to people who should have exercised better judgment, but he does consider the possible consequences, including the possibility that it improved the response of outsiders. His bottom line, however, is that "truth became a casualty" of the disaster and "unfairly tarnished" the city.

The second story is an op-ed from USA Today by John Seigenthaler. Seigenthaler, an assistant to AG Bobby Kennedy, was the victim of an internet smear through his Wikipedia entry and describes his efforts to get the fallacious information removed (successfully) and take action against his defamer (less so). Over the weekend, the story was covered in the New York Times Week in Review section. The NYT piece tries to present something from detractors and defenders of Wikipedia, but the criticisms and defenses don't really meet at the same level.

I'm sympathetic to Seigenthaler's situation, but his editorial is a bit overdramatic. He refers to the false information about him as "toxic" and suggests through his pursuit of legal recourse that he believes it to be libelous, but putting aside the First Amendment issues of defamation against public figures, only certain kinds of statements can be considered libelous per se. In other cases, like this one I would suspect, where the allegations in the statement are that he was merely suspected at one time of involvement with a crime ("Nothing was ever proven") and that he lived in the Soviet Union for awhile, it's not clear that any actual damage to his reputation resulted. Certainly, the allegations are of a nature sensitive to Seigenthaler, but his recourse then would be "intentional infliction of emotional distress" or something like that. I'd expect a former journalist and founder of the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt to know better.

I'm sure other bloggers have covered the possible consequences of making ISPs and web publishers liable for every possibly defamatory statement they issue (and if not, just check out the EFF) but the points raised by Welch about media coverage of New Orleans and the Superdome put Seigenthaler's complaint in some perspective. A lot more Americans have heard of New Orleans than have heard of John Seigenthaler, and many, many more of them probably heard about the stories of mayhem in the wake of the hurricane disasters. Seigenthaler doesn't know how many people possibly read the false information in his Wikipedia entry, but how many people do you think read it? Stories like Welch's are starting to straighten out accounts of post-Katrina behavior, but it's quite possible that many people won't ever hear the more accurate stories, or won't care enough to update their beliefs if they do hear them. Can New Orleans residents take action against A.P.? Of course not, and this is despite the fact that A.P., unlike Wikipedia, maintains that the things they publish are true.

Seigenthaler has continued to moan about the injuries done to him, despite the fact that a lot more people are finding out about them through his editorial and stories about it than from Wikipedia itself. I'm more concerned about what happens to people who can't write an op-ed for USA Today in response to defamatory statements posted online about them. Journalists, it seems, love free speech until it turns against them.

As I see it, the problem is the degree of authority mistakenly accorded to information sources that don't warrant it. I'm in the middle of grading final essays and exams for the Fall semester now (why else would I be writing a blog entry?) and despite efforts to combat it, internet "research" conducted through Google or something like Wikipedia now constitutes a majority of the work that students put into writing papers, by my estimation. I've cautioned students many times against citing Wikipedia in their papers, but even if they don't, many of them end up using the same information copied from one of the "mirror" sites that copy Wikipedia entries wholesale. I've come to accept that it's impossible to specify exhaustively what sources students can and can't use in their research and have begun trying to explain how to evaluate sources instead.

Undergraduates have a hard enough time just understanding the purposes of citation, but they can get it. As opposed to a few years ago, most students now have some inkling of how to cite webpages, but I get lots of bibliographies with entries attributed to "Factiva" or "ProQuest", which is like listing a bunch of articles and books and citing them "Library". A student asked me once why I didn't consider a Wikipedia entry to be an acceptable source and I was surprised to find that, while explaining my position, the student didn't know how Wikipedia actually worked. With that knowledge in hand, the student saw clearly why Wikipedia was inadequate as a "source" of information.

Seigenthaler is probably right that "[t]he marketplace of ideas ultimately will take care of the problem", or at least that's the best possible solution, but I think journalists like Seigenthaler should be more sensitive to the possibility that incidents like the Katrina coverage (and several other stories I'm sure you can think of) are eroding the credibility of their own institutions. Looking at this controversy within the broader discussion of "new media" and their claims against the mainstream media (MSM, in blogspeak), Seignethaler's complaints are just the latest lament of the unaccountable, irresponsible world of the Pajamahadeen as opposed by the balanced, neutral, and responsible world of professional journalism.


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