More transparency online will prompt overdue conversations

The discovery that people inside companies and political organizations have been sprucing up what's said about them on Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia that anyone can edit, may be the least surprising PR-related news in years.

The discovery that people inside companies and political organizations have been sprucing up what's said about them on Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia that anyone can edit, may be the least surprising PR-related news in years.

Even less surprising: These folks were making the changes under the misimpression that no one would notice.

It would be a shame if companies and other subjects of Wikipedia articles learned the wrong lesson. It's a given, however, that the main result of this mini-scandal will resemble what the Bush administration did when it wanted to hide sleazy political maneuverings: Move the communications to Web domains where Congress and the press won't be able to catch the goings-on.

The better lesson: More, not less, transparency. Wikipedia and media organizations could help.

(Disclosures: Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales is a friend and an adviser to my nonprofit venture. I'm an investor in Wikia, his for-profit wiki company not affiliated with Wikipedia. And I own stock in several media companies.)

Wikipedia admonishes subjects of articles not to edit them. Rather, the organization advises, put a note in the article discussion, and let the other editors sort it out. Or wait for someone else to correct the mistakes.

How many people who look at Wikipedia articles, however, know that they could find such things in the discussions? I'd wager that most do not. I'd like to see Wikipedia highlight this feature more than it does. That would be a start in helping people understand that the articles in this great resource are not the place you stop reading, but perhaps the best place to start.

Google News' experiment in letting people comment on articles about them (or their organizations) is an intriguing idea. But it doesn't seem to be getting traction, possibly because what Google is trying to do sounds so entirely out of character for the company.

Journalism organizations could take a clue, meanwhile, from bloggers. Most blogs encourage, or at least allow, comments on postings. Only a relative few news organizations do so, and they tend to hold their journalistic noses (sometimes for good reason) at the free-for-all that often results.

A better way to do things would be to encourage the people they cover to start blogs and to point to the blogs from the news stories. This would be the rough equivalent of equal time for the newsmaker - imperfect, but a much better way to give audiences a way to hear from the people being covered.

The hard part, of course, is convincing news organizations that they should automatically link outside the walls - and, more than that, link to places where they will face sometimes-harsh criticism. Yet it's only fair.

This isn't to say journalists should let stand the critiques that either evade the truth or outright lie. They have a responsibility to push back, hard, when they encounter such stuff.

The Web gives everyone a chance to have these conversations. They're overdue.

Dan Gillmor is the author of We the Media: Grass-roots Journalism By the People, For the People. He's also director of the Center for Citizen Media (www.citmedia.org).

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