Could the solution to fake news be found in Wikipedia? Sounds impossible considering Wikipedia’s longtime struggles with fighting bad information on their own platform, but site founder Jimmy Wales does have some interesting ideas for a news website that should be launching soon.
Wikitribune is the name, and Wales says it will be dedicated to publishing news stories in a “factual and neutral” tone. It’ll be a hybrid of Wikipedia and a traditional news outlet — professional journalists will do the reporting, but there will be a platform for users to submit corrections, which will be reviewed by a volunteer team of fact checkers.
We can pump the brakes a bit here. If that model sounds familiar, it should! It describes every news website, ever. That platform for submission of corrections? That’s a comment section! That’s definitely one of the reasons we have those. If you want to go back even farther, this isn’t much different than newspapers taking into account letters to the editor. It’s not revolutionary.
The bit about a neutral tone also has its problems. One of the oldest tenets of journalism is that neutrality of tone isn’t the goal — it’s neutrality of methods. Neutrality of tone relegates the journalist to the robotic work of reproducing rote facts — something actual robots can now do. It negates the need for judgement on the part of the journalist — both the judgement to tell what is and isn’t newsworthy and the judgement of what is and isn’t true, or at least supported by convincing evidence. If someone says the sky is blue and someone else says the sky is red, it’s not the journalist’s job to say “well, they both have a point.” More important is that journalists make the effort to investigate all the assertions they’re presented with and present their conclusions — regardless of whether or not that leads to a neutral finished product.
Fortunately, those are not the only ways Wikitribune will be different from other news outlets. One difference is a big one for fans of transparency — the site will publish full transcripts of interviews, plus any accompanying video or audio. That’s critical for anyone who has wondered about how often quotes get taken out of context.
But, by far the most important difference is in funding. Wales (of the now-infamous Wikipedia donation drives) plans to use only donations to fund Wikitribune. This is probably the most essential step towards rebuilding a strong, credible media institution — the fall of newspapers (and subscriptions) has meant that the readership is literally no longer buying into news organizations. Without any skin in the game, pressure from advertisers has become far more powerful.
The problem with that isn’t exactly pressure from advertisers themselves. With ad revenue becoming virtually the only source of revenue for news sites big and small, sites have tended to produce more and more content purpose-built to generate traffic. It means that doing good journalism is no longer the guiding principle of the organization (if it ever was, which can be argued against) — it’s survival. If Wikitribune can actually survive only on funding from readers (and good luck to them, because that’s the Holy Grail of journalism), it could have real potential to help reverse the disastrous collapse of public trust in the media.
That’s, of course, if the wiki- part doesn’t turn them off from the start.