Digital communications platforms are constantly pushing the comfort zones of business executives and the general public alike, and recent events on Wikipedia prove to be no exception. Last week, it was reported that a formal news outlet wasn’t the first to break the story of Tim Russert’s unexpected death; rather, it was an update on Wikipedia that was time-stamped 3:01pm on the day of his death—approximately 40 minutes before it was officially announced by Tom Brokaw on NBC.
Today, the New York Times discusses the controversy about the wiki’s “breaking news,” given the fact that the story was deliberately kept under wraps until Russert’s wife and son, who were traveling in Italy, could be notified. Other news outlets agreed to hold the story out of respect for the family. Meanwhile, his death was being discussed prematurely on sites like Twitter, and anyone could “confirm” the news by checking Wikipedia.
The situation raises a number of issues, all of which hinge on the ubiquity and anarchic power of online communications platforms. Firstly, nothing is sacred, nor is anything untraceable; Wikipedia’s records traced the edits back to the Internet Broadcasting Services, a Minnesota-based company that provides Web services to, among other organizations, local NBC TV stations. The employee responsible has allegedly been fired.
What is the line between social and traditional media? When do you know if something you read online is trustworthy? As arguably inappropriate as it was to have Wikipedia be the first source of such high-impact news, it was accurate. So, should the IBS employee have been fired? I don’t know the answers, but one could certainly argue that accuracy is one thing, and good taste is something completely different. Unfortunately for journalists (present company included), it’s getting harder and harder to differentiate between the two.
By Courtney Barnes