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Is Wikipedia stealing the news?

1 May 2019
Research reveals the online encyclopedia’s place in the news landscape
While the influence of Facebook and Google on the news landscape has been well examined, Wikipedia's role as a source of breaking news has not received enough attention, says a University of Sydney expert.

Dr Bunty Avieson from the University’s Department of Media and Communications has examined Wikipedia as a breaking news source, in a new research paper published today in prestigious internet studies journal First Monday.

“When a major global news event occurs, such as the Easter bombings in Sri Lanka or the Christchurch shootings, Wikipedia contributors from around the world come together in a virtual ‘newsroom’ to craft a narrative, followed closely by readers seeking the latest information,” she said.

Her research found in any given month, the site’s most popular articles – both in number of views and number of edits – are those that report breaking news.

Using the case study of a Wikipedia entry about the 2014 Sydney hostage crisis – also known as the Lindt Cafe siege – Dr Avieson analysed Wikipedia’s breaking news practice.

“Less than two hours after Man Haron Monis locked the doors on the Lindt Café, a Wikipedia contributor in the Phillippines started a page, based on what she was seeing on BBC News,” Dr Avieson said.

“Over the next few hours she was joined by contributors from Australia, Sweden (where it was 3am), the US (Chicago, Ohio, Alaska, Utah and Hawaii), plus Canada, Pakistan, Finland, Ireland, France, Canada, Egypt, Iraq and Ukraine. This disaparate group of volunteers worked collaboratively to synthesise the news that was emanating from reporters on the ground in Martin Place and appearing online all around the world.

“The global representation shows up in the page’s diverse references which range from The Gympie Times to The Jerusalem Post, Fox News and Times of India.”

Dr Avieson’s research also highlighted some of the consequences of using Wikipedia as a source of news. 

“Wikipedia contributors don’t undertake the core role of journalists, which is to produce new work. Contributors’ news gathering practices are solely ‘aggregation and assemblage’, and it is important to recognise that the journalistic labour that underpins a Wikipedia page has been funded by media organisations and appropriated without economic consideration. The high traffic to the 2014 Sydney hostage crisis page demonstrates that Wikipedia is a competitor to media organisations,” she said.

“Similarly, in terms of professionalism, contributors don’t answer to journalism codes of ethics and the hierarchy that has formed is based on seniority and meritocracy, where editors gain administrative privileges according to the culture of Wikipedia. This raises some ethical concerns.”

Dr Avieson’s research comes ahead of the upcoming conference, The World of Wikimedia: communicating and collaborating across languages and cultures. Being held at the University of Sydney from 12-14 June, the conference will bring together world-leading Wikipedia researchers to examine Wikipedia’s unrealised potential for supporting the preservation of languages and traditions.Find out more here.

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