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Wikipedia, Obits and Faking

Adam Bernstein

Wikipedia is often an easy place for journalists to get a fast overview of a life, but it carries it dangers. Consider the recent case of a Dubliner named Shane Fitzgerald, whose college experiment on globalization led many obituary writers astray when he placed fake quotation in a famous composer's Wiki entry.

"One could say my life itself has been one long soundtrack," said Maurice Jarre, whose scores for the movies ''Lawrence of Arabia'' (1962) and "Dr. Zhivago" (1965) were among the most recognizable of film soundtracks. "Music was my life, music brought me to life, and music is how I will be remembered long after I leave this life. When I die there will be a final waltz playing in my head, that only I can hear."

It's a dippy quotation that would be an ideal kicker for a story for those who like dippy quotations. Indeed, many obit writers used the quotation, unattributed, when Jarre died in March.

It's unattributed for a good reason. Jarre never said it, according to this Irish Times report.

The student who made up the comment said purposely disseminating false information was part of his effort to see how journalists rely on the Internet as a primary source. He told the Times he posted the fake comment upon hearing of Jarre's death, and after it was removed by some moderators because it lacked attribution, he went right back and reposted it.

Well, raspberry to him for being kind of a jerk in a public forum. But good for him for underscoring the dangers of reporting in the modern age. The problem with the Internet is how easy it makes journalism, and that ease often gives way to laziness.

The lessons are obvious not just for obituarists but for all journalists who value an accurate record of life.

An obit colleague, Steve Miller of the Wall Street Journal, writes this:

"Which is not to say that our analog predecessors never made a mistake. Many of them would have cribbed from Wikipedia too, given the chance. How do we know? Because in clips we can watch them crib from each other and standard reference sources."

Miller promises to send a blog posting on this subject, which we'll post.

I hope it addresses when it makes sense to source material. In other words, it can get silly when you say, "Maurice Jarre was born Sept. 13, 1924, according to Current Biography."

But this raises another question. Colleagues of mine at the obit desk feel too much attribution ruins the flow of the story. At what point to readers want a good uninterrupted tale, and at what point do they need to know where the information is coming from?

By Adam Bernstein  |  May 7, 2009; 5:22 PM ET
Categories:  Adam Bernstein  
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Hello Adam,
I wrote about this a couple of years ago in the telegraph and it prompted an interesting response from roy greenslade in the guardian

Hope you're all well

Posted by: mckiea | May 8, 2009 5:00 AM | Report abuse

This is an interesting incident, but the point is not, I think, to cite Wikipedia as a source and thereby throw the burden of verification on the reader, but to actually verify info initially gathered from Wikipedia - use it, fine, but go one step further! It's more than a little disappointing to see journalists make this kind of mistake.

Posted by: ericka1 | May 9, 2009 9:56 PM | Report abuse

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