The conservative take on Wikipedia
A couple months ago John Miller, a reporter for the conservative publication The National Review, contacted me for an interview about Wikipedia. I had previously encountered a few Wikipedia editors who seemed keen on advancing their political views, so I welcomed the opportunity to discuss the intersection of political agendas and Wikipedia editing.
John had done his homework before our conversation, and had some interesting questions. The central foundation for his story was the opinion of many conservatives that Wikipedia articles, in general, have a liberal bias.
To illustrate the point, John brought up the articles on David Vitter (a “conservative” U.S. Senator accused of soliciting prostitutes) and Eliot Spitzer (New York’s “liberal” former governor, accused of the same). (Note: linked articles are the old revisions that were current at the time of our interview.) John pointed out that the prostitution scandal was mentioned in the first paragraph on the Vitter article, but that Spitzer’s scandal was buried several paragraphs deep.
(video: a humorous take on political bias on Wikipedia)
I wasn’t familiar with those specific articles (although I’d done a little work on Vitter’s a while back). I took a look, and immediately recognized that the articles were simply at two different stages in their natural evolution.
Natural evolution? What the heck is that? Well, once you’ve worked on a whole lot of Wikipedia articles, you start to notice some patterns in how they get developed. One of the most significant elements of an articles is the lead section — essentially, the introduction to a subject. Wikipedia actually has a guideline on writing good lead sections; among other things, it recommends that a lead section have several paragraphs, and that it should generally be comprehensive enough to serve as a complete summary of the article, capable of standing on their own.
But meeting that guideline can be one of the most difficult tasks involved in writing an article, because the author needs to understand the subject pretty thoroughly to even attempt such a task. Anybody can add a detail to the appropriate section of an article, drawing facts out of a newspaper article or other source; but writing a concise overview at the beginning takes deeper comprehension.
So often, articles go through a cycle where numerous facts are added to the body, while the lead section remains very short. Often, the details that wind up in the lead section are those that are currently in the news. This was clearly the case in the Vitter article; but with the Spitzer article, somebody had already taken the initiative of writing a more complete lead, so the (recent) prostitution scandal was in its chronologically proper place, near the end of the lead.
What’s the lesson in all this? I’m not entirely sure. As I told John, I’m not sure anyone — myself included — is in a position to draw conclusions about the general bias of the encyclopedia. Articles vary widely. Some subjects have diligent editors watching closely. Other subjects, often overlapping, have highly biased editors working hard to establish their points of view. Wikipedia does have highly effective procedures in place to address this kind of “point-of-view pushing,” but highly effective is a far cry from perfect.
My opinion — more or less reflected in the Daily Show video above — is that Wikipedia levels the playing field for all potential contributors (with Internet access), so in a certain respect, its structure allows it to be unbiased in a more organic and reliable way than any other information source. But by the same token, a system as open as Wikipedia allows for all sorts of gamesmanship. So like I said, I’m really not sure what the “true state” of Wikipedia is. All I can say is, the more prominent areas I work in appear to improve in their quality and balance over time, due to the contributions of a variety of people. More obscure subjects are slower to evolve, and are more likely to reflect an individual enthusiast’s point of view.
At any rate, the article John wound up writing (unfortunately not available online) is one of the more thoughtful and accurate pieces I’ve seen produced by a general interest publication. He offers advice to conservatives looking to bring balance to overly liberal articles, and that advice is measured and appropriate, largely mirroring the advice seasoned Wikipedians offer to newcomers. Near the end of his article, he quotes a self-identified conservative Wikipedia editor as saying: “Conservatives shouldn’t whine about bias because they can correct it themselves.”
Oh, and the Vitter article? Not wanting to interfere directly, I left a note on the article’s discussion page, encouraging those familiar with the subject to write a more comprehensive lead section. A few weeks later, it was taken care of.
issue date: April 21, 2008
Liberal Web: In the Battle of Wikipedia, we must not surrender
JOHN J. MILLER