The mainstream media loves to bash Wikipedia, that enormous online encyclopedia created through the collaborative efforts of volunteer writers and researchers. It covers tens of thousands of topics, and is consistently an excellent source of information on everything ranging from world history to new terminology in the technology industry. I use Wikipedia frequently.
It's no surprise that the mainstream media loves to bash Wikipedia. The media can't stand the fact that an open, nonprofit, non-commercially influenced information source might actually be more useful than the archives of their own newspapers and magazines. You hear a lot of Wikipedia bashing going on in the mainstream press when they find one article that has an incorrect statement, or an article that has been edited by the person mentioned in the article to make them sound better -- because anyone can edit a Wikipedia entry, even the person about whom the article was written. The media portrays the idea that Wikipedia is inaccurate when, in fact, I find Wikipedia to be far more accurate than the mainstream media.
Your average newspaper is mostly just a collection of reprinted press releases, propaganda pieces from advertisers and recycled newswire articles that the employees of that paper didn't write in the first place. They didn't bother to do any fact checking or even add anything to it. Most newspapers aren't even in the business of gathering news anymore. They don't conduct honest journalism and they don't do investigative stories -- they just reprint what is handed to them or what appeases their advertisers.
Newspapers lie by omission as well. They distort the news by what they leave out -- what they refuse to cover. The news industry frequently passes over stories that might anger advertisers. This is a common practice, whether we're talking about network news, cable news, newspapers or magazines, or even online news from sites that have heavy corporate influences. But at Wikipedia, you don't have any of these influences. It's an open-source site, so it doesn't have to appease corporate interests. It doesn't have an agenda and it certainly doesn't try to appease advertisers. It doesn't have centralized political control, either -- the White House can't call them up and demand that a story be yanked. That's why Wikipedia is almost always neutral on the issues. And that makes it more accurate than mainstream information sources.
The democratization of information
Wikipedia is about the decentralization of information; it's about the democratization of fact gathering and fact reporting. That's a wonderful phenomenon in the world of information
and media. It's something that the traditional media doesn't like to see at all. It would rather have a centrally controlled decision maker for information, like you get with the Associated Press. Then, if you want to influence all the news around the country, all you have to do is influence that one decision maker. Twist the arm of the gatekeeper, and everyone else will fall in line.
With Wikipedia, there is no single gatekeeper, so the federal government and most for-profit corporations find it frustrating to try to get Wikipedia to say what they want it to say. That's usually a good thing for everyone else; it means freedom of information and decentralization of censorship and content control. And although there are some isolated cases of Wiki vandalism and spamming, they are extremely rare given the enormous collection of content covered by Wikipedia. That's why Wikipedia is really a milestone in the history of the internet and the history of free information, and that's exactly why it is under constant assault by the traditional institutions that influence public opinion in this country, such as the press, the White House, and large corporations.
Real information vs. processed news
Your average hometown newspaper really just pretends to practice genuine journalism. It may have a few local stories it actually wrote on its own, but a lot of the content in newspapers, even in larger papers, is just filler content that it gets as a subscriber to various newswire services. If you ever wonder why all the papers in the country happen to be talking about the same topic on the same day, it's not just because it happens to be a timely topic; it's because they've all tuned in to the same news feed from the same centralized sources. The fact is, they're all talking about it because that's what's been handed to them by the centralized news decision makers in this country. It doesn't mean it's really relevant, or that it's the most important news of the day.
You might say this is like comparing apples and oranges. Wikipedia isn't supposed to be a newspaper. So why am I talking about news organizations? They're both in the business of writing content, and they both must answer to the public when it comes to the accuracy of that content. When I see newspapers bashing Wikipedia over a lack of quality control, I have to hold up a mirror in front of the newspapers and say, "Look at what you do. How many journalists from the New York Times and other papers have been fired after being caught making up all the facts in their articles?" Some journalists, even well known ones, will simply invent interviews with fictional sources and use that as evidence to write their stories.
Many of the stories, even in big papers like the New York Times, don't involve any real fact checking; they're just based on information handed to them by the White House or corporations. The press is big on disease mongering, for example. It will promote practically any disease, even if it's completely fictitious, as long as someone from a pharmaceutical company says the disease is real and that people should be afraid of it. Look at the hype over "Restless Leg Syndrome" for an example of the disease mongering carried out by the mainstream media.
I'm not saying that the New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post or other newspapers never engage in real journalism -- clearly they do from time to time. Those papers have occasionally produced some really outstanding stories and true investigative reports, and for that, they are to be applauded. But shouldn't that be what newspapers are entirely focused on doing? Shouldn't these national newspapers be held to the highest standards of journalism? Shouldn't all their stories be investigative stories? Why do they run anything that's just a remix of the common newswire?
Maybe I'm being too critical; after all, my own stories don't involve detailed investigative journalism, either. But I don't run a $100 million news operation with over a thousand employees and reporters. Simply put, we don't have the budget to do hard-core investigative journalism on every single story. Give me the budget of a paper like USA Today, and we could turn out some Pulitzer-Prize-caliber stories on what's going on with the FDA, the pharmaceutical companies, and other conspiracies taking place in the United States. But for some reason, there's no good funding for those kinds of stories. There's no money to be made in telling the truth these days.
I wonder if that's because the big corporations that prop up the finances of the popular newspapers aren't really interested in the public learning the truth about subjects like that. Rest assured, if I ever get my hands on enough funds to conduct such investigative journalism and fund a team of researchers and reporters, I'll be using Wikipedia as a source for leads and information. Wikipedia is a good thing -- the fact that the media bashes it should tell you that it's actually a very important competitor in the information monopoly that used to be held by the popular press.
Old school newspapers -- the kind printed on dead trees -- are dinosaurs. Even TIME Magazine is slashing staff these days, and readers are abandoning printed newspapers in a steady march towards online information. Thumbs up to Wikipedia, the Public Library of Science (PLoS journals) and other open-source projects that engage readers and decentralize information rather than trying to dictate it.