It’s interesting to track how the mainstream media covers the big, sprawling story that is Wikipedia.
Here’s an odd little article from Reuters on Wednesday, which reports the flurry of revisions that took place on the Ken Lay Wikipedia article immediately following news of his fatal heart attack (suicide? murder? vanishing act?). What’s odd about the Reuters piece is its obvious befuddlement at the idea that an article could be evolving in real time, or, more to the point, that a news purveyor would allow unverified information to be posted as the story was unfolding — to allow an argument over facts to be aired in front of the public. Apparently, this was the first time this reporter had ever bothered to click the “history” tab at the top of an article.
At 10:06 a.m. Wikipedia’s entry for Lay said he died “of an apparent suicide.”
At 10:08 it said he died at his Aspen home “of an apparent heart attack or suicide.”
Within the same minute, it said the cause of death was “yet to be determined.”
At 10:09 a.m. it said “no further details have been officially released” about the death.
Two minutes later, it said: “The guilt of ruining so many lives finaly (sic) led him to his suicide.”
At 10:12 a.m. this was replaced by: “According to Lay’s pastor the cause was a ‘massive coronary’ heart attack.”
By 10:39 a.m. Lay’s entry said: “Speculation as to the cause of the heart attack lead many people to believe it was due to the amount of stress put on him by the Enron trial.” This statement was later dropped.
By early Wednesday afternoon, the entry said Lay was pronounced dead at Aspen Valley Hospital, citing the Pitkin, Colorado, sheriff’s department. It said he apparently died of a massive heart attack, citing KHOU-TV in Houston.
Hard news has traditionally been prized as the antidote to rumor and speculation, but Wikipedia delivers a different sort of news. It’s a place where churning through the misinformation, confusion and outright lies is all part of the process of nailing down a controversial, breaking news topic. Thinking perhaps that he/she had a scoop, the Reuters reporter unintentionally captures the surpise and mild discomfort most people tend to feel when grappling for the first time with the full implications of Wikipedia.