Negotiating neutrality in Wikinews

3 02 2009

My (ahem) empirical contribution to news scholarship lies in the computer-assisted, ethnographic analysis of desktop news production. In essence, I examine how business reporters write news from sources as they write. As such, my study of news production provides an empirically grounded contribution to academic and public debates about the quality of news, the impact and role of ‘information subsidies’ and the practice of desktop journalism.

Until fairly recently, analyzing the process of news production was very much a post hoc enterprise. At the risk of generalization, you could observe journalists at work, interview them, have them reflect on or document their practices. You could also compare source texts, style guides or memo with news articles. With the emergence of digital writing tools such as keystroke logging and screen recording software, it became possible to track and compare what journalists say they do to how they do what they say. The work of Daniel Perrin is groundbreaking in this respect.

An alternative way of analyzing the process of news production is exemplified in an article by Einar Thorsen in New Media & Society. Drawing on the editorial history of selected Wikinews articles, Thorsen studies how a micro-community of Wikinews editors and collaborators negotiate the website’s neutral point of view policy. As Thorsen (2008: 939) argues, this policy is best understood as

a dialogic interaction between various truth-claims, whereby ‘official monologism’ containing a ‘ready-made truth’ is rejected for a heteroglossic notion of reality. However, (…) anyone who does not agree with the community consensus, or at least the way in which this is being represented, is effectively positioned as an ‘ideologue’. This is an interesting problematic, as there is no clear definition of who is ‘rational’ or rather, ostensibly non-ideological.

Thorsen’s critique focuses on the operationalization of the neutral point of view policy in 5 Wikinews articles. In addition to editing source references and eyewitness reports, Wikinews contributors edit points of view by removing value-laden words. For example, this is how a point of view [POV] dispute is resolved by the Wikinews contributors (taken from Thorsen 2008: 943).

[POV] Irene Khan, Secretary General of Amnesty International made comments that inflamed U.S. officials by comparing the United States detention facility at Guantanamo Bay to a Soviet-era gulag … Bush administration officials responded with disdain to this comparison.
[NPOV] Irene Khan, Secretary General of Amnesty International compared the United States detention facility at Guantanamo Bay to a Soviet-era gulag … Bush administration officials condemned the comparison.

Thorsen finds inconsistency in the current implementation of the Wikinews neutral point of view policy and concludes that it more likely reflects “the individual contributors’ interpretation than a unified concept” of neutrality (2008: 951). What floats my boat about this article is that it illustrates how a linguistically sensitive form of news production analysis can be productively applied to citizen journalism, thus inviting more scholars to follow suit.

Thorsen, Einar (2008). Journalistic objectivity redefined? Wikinews and the neutral point of view. New Media & Society 10 (6): 935-954.

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2 responses

20 06 2009
On print and online journalism (again) « Tom Van Hout

[…] inevitably leads to discussions about sausage making. Einar Thorsen wrote a wonderful paper about this process. Drawing on the editorial history of selected Wikinews articles, he studied how a micro-community […]

8 09 2009
gopher65

As a Wikinews contributor, I don’t disagree with Thorsen’s assessment, but his claim as to why this happens misses the point.

There are about… 20 regular contributors to Wikinews. This means that the Wikinews community is, for lack of a better term, “granular” in its policies and implementation of those policies. In any system as small as Wikinews, individual action matters far more than group action. As any community increases in size, this heterogeneous implementation of policy goes away, and individual opinion and smallscale non-consensus ceases to be a major problem.

But for 20 people and the occasional anonymous editor? Of *course* it’s a problem. It would be shocking if it wasn’t a problem on scales this small.

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