Following the mistaken publication of a premature obituary in the New York Journal, Mark Twain cabled his publishers to tell them that “Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated” (June 2 1897)
Now that Wikipedia has issued two such obituaries, the user-generated site is to review the regulations governing contributions.
This is after pages on Senators Edward Kennedy and Robert Byrd had been edited incorrectly to state that they had both died. Senator Kennedy has a malignant brain tumour and collapsed during an inaugural lunch for President Obama on 20 January and was later reported to be recovering in hospital. His entry on the site read that “Kennedy suffered a seizure at a luncheon following the Barack Obama presidential inauguration on 20 January 2009. He was removed in a wheelchair and died shortly after”. A similar mistake was made on the entry for Senator Byrd.
Both errors were corrected in a very short time but now Wikipedia’s founder Jimmy Wales wants a new users’ changes to be vetted by an editor. At present very few topics are subject to this process – the most famous example being the Israel / Palestine conflict which is subject to continuous review. Extending the editing process is opposed by some contributors who claim that such a process would lead to backlogs and the loss of the site’s reputation for speed. Mr Wales says that 60 per cent of his users are in favour of the scheme however he is faced with a barrage of protest from other Wikipedia editors.
One said “Our future depends on those ignorant of Wikipedia’s potential stumbling on an article, fixing it and getting hooked. Flagged revisions throw a wrench into that process”. Jimmy Wales has asked the opposition to make “an alternative proposal with seven days, to be voted upon fourteen days after that.”
This is not the first time that Wikipedia has issued incorrect information about the passing of public figures.When the disgraced Enron chief Kenneth Lay died suddenly in 2006, the news agency, Reuters decided to monitor the way his death was described on the website. Lay’s death, six weeks after his fraud conviction, was variously attributed to an apparent suicide at 10.06am, two minutes later it was a “heart attack or suicide”, at 10.11am “the guilt of ruining so many lives finaly (sic) led him to suicide” and then a few minutes after that, “a doctor” stated that the stress of the trial had probably led to his death. Getting information right would lead to delays in publication of entries however since Wikipedia claims to be a reference work not a news network, this should not be seen as a problem.