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What Wikipedia can tell us about the future of news

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It doesn’t get a lot of attention from media analysts during discussions about breaking news events like the recent shootings in Connecticut, but one of the first places I go whenever that kind of incident occurs is Wikipedia — and I’m usually amazed at how quickly and thoroughly a page about the event is created, updated and edited by unseen and often anonymous editors. Now a social-sciences researcher who specializes in studying Wikipedia as an information source has analyzed this phenomenon, with specific attention to mass shootings like the one at Sandy Hook, and given us a fascinating look inside one of the few crowdsourced online news efforts that occurs at that kind of scale.

Brian Keegan is a post-doctoral research fellow in computational social science at Northeastern University, and his research examines how social media like Twitter and Wikipedia can be used to improve predictive models relating to things like electoral success. For his PhD in media and technology, he looked at Wikipedia’s coverage of breaking news events like natural disasters, technological catastrophes, and political upheaval — and in a recent blog post, he combined a look at the Wikipedia article about Sandy Hook with some of his previous research into other similar incidents like the shootings in Aurora earlier this year.

In his post, which was also published at the Nieman Journalism Lab, Keegan describes how he analyzed Wikipedia’s coverage of seven events — including the recent shootings, the attack in Colorado, the mass killings in Norway in 2011, and the shootings at Virginia Tech in 2007. In almost every case, pages about these events were created within one or two hours of the incidents, and involved thousands of edits in the first day or two.

Some articles are edited hundreds of times an hour

What I found most interesting about Keegan’s research — apart from the fascinating graphs of Wikipedia activity, one of which is embedded below — is how the number of people who are contributing to or editing such an article evolves over time. In the early hours following the event, Keegan’s analysis shows that there are dozens or even hundreds of people contributing, but after about four hours the numbers begin to dwindle, and a smaller group takes over. As Keegan describes it:

“[T]he edits over the first few hours are evenly distributed: editors make a single contribution and others immediately jump in to also make single contributions as well. However, around hour 3 or 4, one or more dedicated editors show up and begin to take a vested interest in the article, which is manifest in the rapid centralization of the article. This centralization increases slightly over time across all articles suggesting these dedicated editors continue to edit after other editors move on.”


There isn’t a lot of hard data about what happens when large-scale crowdsourced journalism occurs around a breaking news event. Those involved in projects like The Guardian‘s massive MPs Expenses campaign from 2009 — in which more than 20,000 volunteers combed through more than 200,000 documents related to the expenses of British politicians — have written about the lessons learned, as have those involved in similar projects like ProPublica’s excellent “Free The Files” experiment during the recent federal election. From those kinds of projects, we have learned that making user contributions easy — lowering the barrier to participation — is important, as is adding an element of gamification or incentives.

But hard data about specific contributions and when they occurred isn’t all that common. Keegan describes one incredible statistic from his study:

“The Virginia Tech article was still being edited several times every minute even 36 hours after the event while other articles were seeing updates every five minutes more than a day after the event. This means that even at 3 am, all these articles are still being updated every few minutes by someone somewhere.”

A swarm of contributors, followed by a core of editors

The picture that emerges from Keegan’s research (his PhD dissertation is here) is of a large swarm of volunteer editors and contributors who descend on Wikipedia en masse during the first few hours after a news event, adding tiny details or editing out certain facts, fixing grammar, etc. And many of the contributors to the more recent incidents like Sandy Hook had never contributed to any of the other articles about similar shootings or mass killings. Within a matter of hours, however, a core group of editors shows up who have been involved in some or all of the previous breaking news articles — one in particular has edited every single mass shooting article within 48 hours of it being created.

In at least some cases, these editors appear to be part of Wikipedia’s semi-professional “cabal” of internal editors, but whatever their status it seems clear that they are individuals who have taken it upon themselves to oversee the “reporting” of that kind of event. In a very real sense, they are the equivalent of the grizzled desk editor or night editor who looks over the copy submitted by the young cub reporter — except of course that they are largely anonymous and unpaid, and so are the cub reporters they are overseeing.

Does the way that Wikipedia operates contain a solution to the chaos that emerges in social media following an event like the Sandy Hook shootings — which I’ve argued is the way that news works now? In a sense, it is a large-scale version of the real-time crowdsourced verification that Andy Carvin of NPR does, which has come under fire recently. But if nothing else, it should give some of those in the traditional media ideas: Could they turn a breaking news page into the equivalent of a Wikipedia article, and if not, why not?

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and Brian Keegan

6 Responses to “What Wikipedia can tell us about the future of news”

  1. Ray Saintonge

    To address the final question in the article, the difference is in the proprietary nature of traditional news reporting. Getting the scoop on a story once made a newspaper more competitive, but we no longer need to depend on a single source for news. If one news source does not adequately cover a subject or hides behind a pay wall we can easily look elsewhere for information. A person sufficiently interested in the Sandy Hook shootings may reach out to Newtown’s local newspaper, but will have no need to do so for any unconnected future story.

    Crowdsourced articles are impossible to monetize. A person who has contributed to a story is rightfully indignant when some individual or corporation claims copyright over what he freely gave. At the same time identifying his contribution to properly give due credit could be more trouble than it’s worth. An article that pays $100 to a single contributor would give 10 cent to each of 1,000 contributors. The media need to learn about co-operation. Results will vary from one medium to another over the same story, but that’s OK too. The critical thinker will sort it out in his own way, as in Akutagawa’s “In the Grove”.

    It’s inevitable that a news story will be chaotic in the hours immediately following its big bang. Some ridiculous pieces of speculation could arise in those first few hours. CNN tried to connect the Sandy Hook shooting with one in Hoboken, NJ, but in time that just quietly dropped from the if it had never happened. It becomes so easy to pretend that this statement was never made; it exists only in the minds of those who happened to be watching CNN at that moment. Nor would it surprise me if someone drew a connection between Sandy Hook and Sandy the Hurricane.

  2. Wikipedia is subject to manipulation of fact, deliberate omissions, selective editing and blind obedience to some internal agenda. Oh wait, that’s just like mainstream media…

    • xyzzymagicat

      I wish I could still disagree with you, but in the past half-year or so, I’ve finally run across evidence on several talk-page arguments that trashed my faith in Wikipedia. Experienced editors calling in specific buddies to back them against users that knew far more on a topic, quoting parts of rules that backed them while ignoring parts that contradicted them (ignoring anyone that pointed it out), removing articles they knew little about under a variety of situations where the rules say we should help, rejecting references in one article that had been accepted as part of a “good” article…sigh.

      I’ve seen people state that the issues (particularly deletions) are part of Wikipedia “politics” and deleting somehow benefits an editor, but I can’t begin to fathom how. All I know is that I no longer trust Wikipedia any more than I do any generic wiki, and have no interest in editing or contributing to it anymore. Hopefully something else less easily corrupted will take its place.

      • Ray Saintonge

        What you say is all too common in many articles, but it is less likely in the class of articles described here. When the shootings have such a high profile lack of notability is not available as an excuse for deletion. (This might not be he case of someone were trying to report on a similar event from a century ago.) The presence of a high number of editors make it more difficult for any one of them to hijack the article to serve his own agenda. An article about these shootings may be shocking, but it is not factually controversial. If someone wants to turn it into a long polemic about gun control that can easily be diverted to an article specialized in that problem.

    • Jared Parmenter

      I was wondering the same. From the author:

      “3,262 unique users edited one or more of these seven articles, 222 edited two or more of these articles, 60 had edited 3 or more, and a single user WWGB had edited all seven within the first 48 hours of their creation. These editors are at the center of Figure 7 where they connect to many of the articles on the periphery. The stars surrounding each of the articles are the editors who contributed to that article and that article alone (in this corpus). WWGB is an editor who appears to specialize not only in editing articles about current events, but participating in a community of editors engaged in the newswork on Wikipedia. These editors are not the first to respond (as above), but their work involves documenting administrative pages enumerating current events and mediating discussions across disparate current events articles. The ability for these collaborations to unfold as smoothly as they do appears to rest on the ability for Wikipedia editors with newswork experience to either supplant or compliment the work done by amateurs who first arrive on the page.”