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False Death, False Information

Adam Bernstein

The first sentence is not exactly Garcia Marquez, but it's eye-catching nonetheless. As my colleague Matt Schudel pointed out, an Albany newspaper reports the premature burial of a local man in his college alumni newspaper.

This reminded me of a terrific story the Wall Street Journal published several years ago about the alumni-magazine obits at one British college. Some administrator decided platitudes and dull, "alumni-update" style post mortems were out and the college magazine would stress relentlessly honest accounts of the dead graduates. It would follow the British tradition of vivid euphemism ("He was an uncompromisingly direct ladies man," etc.). Not sure if that's continued, as it might discourage alumni giving.

I was also struck by this account about obituary writers and their reliance on Wikipedia as a source for fact. This is a vivid reminder why Wikipedia is a mixed blessing for researchers.

By Adam Bernstein |  October 4, 2007; 4:02 PM ET  | Category:  Adam Bernstein
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Wikipedia is still kind of problematic.

It used to be the place to plant death hoaxes. That, luckily, has finally stopped.

But Wikipedia has a completely backwards attitude about who/what constitutes a reliable source. Many of us who have accurate data have had our information rejected out of hand (even though we're signing things and providing sources). So I hardly ever update Wikipedia anymore as it's a waste of my time.

Many articles have not been rationally edited, and past hoaxes/bad data remain.

Posted by: Laurie D. T. Mann | October 7, 2007 12:46 PM

So good to hear that the posting of hoaxes in Wikipedia has finally come to an end. At last we can rely on it!

Posted by: I.M. Deranged | October 8, 2007 9:57 AM

For obit writers, Wikipedia really can be a tremendous waste of time. A few years ago, someone called to ask why we had not written about the death of Academy Award-winning actress Louise Fletcher.

Wikipedia had reported her death.

I spent a lot of time trying to locate her representatives and preparing material in the event of her death.

Her manager told me she was alive and well, so I told Wikipedia's overseers about the error. To their credit, they fixed the problem almost immediately. Still, such are the dangers of the Internet and fact-checking.

Posted by: Adam | October 8, 2007 10:33 AM

Adam, it wasn't Wikipedia; it was the IMDB, a completely separate organization. I remember that very clearly as I was one of the people who noticed it.

If it had been Wikipedia you could have changed it yourself in ten seconds even without an account and would not at any time whatsoever have had to "tell Wikipedia overseers". IMDb on the other hand isn't as easy to edit, but on the other hand its admins will stick like glue to false information (such as Al Lewis's birth year, which they kept as 1910 for weeks after his son said it was 1923).

IMDb has all the problems of Wikipedia *plus* all the problems of hard copy: it can contain enormous amounts of false information but it is also virtually impossible to correct if the admins decide they don't accept your proof.

Posted by: Charlene | October 12, 2007 4:05 AM

I should add, except for credits on United States television programs and movies released since ca. 1968, the IMDb is incredibly deficient. It shocks me more that obituary writers depend on the IMDb than that they do Wikipedia, because it leaves out so much.

Posted by: Charlene | October 12, 2007 4:08 AM

Before Wikipedia, IMDB used to be the place to plant death rumors. I had to correct a few of them. They're generally better about not adding a day of death until there's a published obituary.

Birth dates can be harder to correct because there's so much lying about them. I can think of a few people in Dead People Server whose year of birth I've chaged at least three times.

Charlene - I wouldn't call IMDB "deficient" as much as it's growing. I saw the birth of IMDB back in about 1990 when it started and only dealt with movies. For many years, all of the information added was done by volunteers. Now, they get lots of information directly from movie and TV studios. But the old stuff, the stuff that's not available on DVD, is going to take a very long time to be incorporated. And some television series information will probably never get online there.

Posted by: Laurie D. T. Mann | October 12, 2007 9:04 AM

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