Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, is launching WikiTribune, “a global, multilingual, high quality, neutral news service” that is supported by pay-what-you-want subscriptions and has “no other agenda than this: the ultimate arbiter of the truth is the facts of reality.” The “pilot” version launched today, and so far, it sucks.
As of this writing, WikiTribune’s homepage featured a hodgepodge of news aggregation. The “editor’s choice” module points to a news roundup that includes Paul Manafort’s indictment, the Catalonian independence movement, the resignation of the Iraqi president, suicide bombings in Mogadishu, and the actor Anthony Rapp’s allegation that Kevin Spacey made a sexual advance toward him when he was 14. These stories are all sourced to fairly mainstream news outlets, including some that are on Wikipedia’s preferred sources list such as CNN and Reuters, and some that are not, such as Politifact and “Spanish media.” The facts are attributed inline in most cases to those outlets (“according to CNN,” “Reuters independently corroborated,” “according to Spanish media”). These entries also link to what is described as “the full story from WikiTribune” or “WikiTribune’s latest report,” which are simply longer summaries of the news with more facts also attributed to mainstream outlets including NPR and the BBC. The Manafort article was written by intern Charles Michio Turner, “an American journalist who reports on labor, politics and development.” The Catalonia report was written by George (Jorge) Engels, “a staff journalist and producer at WikiTribune” who is from Argentina and lives in London.
I admire what Wales is trying to do here. I believe Wikipedia is an incredible use of the internet and the fact that such an extensive encyclopedia exists and is somewhat global and also free should be admitted into evidence when the aliens come to pass judgment on whether humans should join the galactic alliance. But WikiTribune is bullshit. It’s not new — it is the same kind of news aggregation that exists all over the web. It is not better — comparable summarizing and linking can be found on many websites, while original reporting of those same stories, often supplemented by linking to other reporting, can be found at CNN, Reuters, The New York Times, and the BBC, which WikiTribune uses as its primary sources. And finally, and most importantly, it is not neutral. The existence of the “Editor’s choice” module, which highlights some stories over others, is not neutral; neither is the “Good reads” section, which does the same thing. The Manafort story includes a section, “Highlights from the indictment,” which is not neutral — someone had to decide which parts of the indictment were more significant than others. There is no such thing as an objective highlight. It is true that the wording of the story does not include adjectives, except when it quotes from the indictment (“lavish lifestyle,” “false and misleading statements”), but this is standard newswriting, as one would get from the AP or the New York Times.
A more charitable reading of Wales’s mission statement would suggest that he’s trying to create a news source that could be trusted by all parties, in the way that Wikipedia is cited equally by liberal Twitter pundits and Infowars commenters. But Wikipedia, which one poll found to be trusted more than professional journalists, is not unbiased. In theory, bias by one editor on Wikipedia could be countered by the biases of all the other editors, watering down the bias to establish an agreed-upon foundation of truth. But in reality, one type of editor dominates: white males in rich countries. “In 2009, a Wikimedia Foundation survey revealed that 6 percent of editors who made more than 500 edits were female; with the average male editor having twice as many edits,” according to the Wikipedia article for “Gender bias on Wikipedia. A Guardian op-ed in 2014 noted that the canonical article for women porn stars is better maintained than the analogous article on women writers. Another article on systemic bias within Wikipedia noted that those without internet, people with little free time, and people outside of English speakers from Anglophone countries are underrepresented on the site, while factors like the availability of sources can also bias coverage. “[B]oth China and India have populations greater than all native English speakers combined, or greater than all of Europe combined; by this measure, information on Chinese and Indian topics should, at least, equal Anglophone or European topics,” that article reads. “However, Anglophone topics dominate the content of Wikipedia.”
I asked Wales how he planned to protect WikiTribune from replicating Wikipedia’s systemic bias. “It is a tough challenge. Wikimedia takes it very seriously and yet in that context we have hardly moved the needle at all,” he responded. “Very eager for ideas!” This is Wales’s theme today: WikiTribune is a work in progress. Today’s launch is “not the launch of a news service” but rather “the launch of a project to build a news service,” he wrote. In the promotional video for WikiTribune,” he claimed not to have the solution, but to have a process that will lead to a solution: “The news is broken, but we have figured out how to fix it.”
This tack is very Wiki-esque: Let’s solve it, together! That would be fine except that Wales has not identified the correct problem, nor does he acknowledge that he himself may bring some bias to the process, nor does he seem familiar with the current media landscape. Wales believes that climate change deniers can be persuaded by “actually explain[ing] the evidence to people,” as he wrote on Reddit earlier this year, but this is already what climate reporting is, and does. There are endless articles explaining the evidence to people. This is the bulk of climate reporting.
Wales’s credibility as a media critic was already undermined in September by WikiTribune’s first “taster” article, a story about the UN Global Goods convention in New York written by Lydia Morrish, a full-time WikiTribune reporter based in London. Readers complained that it was “confusing,” biased, erroneous, and “light on contents.” The article was altered in response to comments and given a blanket correction: “This story has been edited by our Launch Editor to reflect some of the feedback below and to add clarity. Thank you.” But even that could not counter the deep-seated bias that some readers identified — the fact that WikiTribune had decided to highlight the efforts of celebrities and the United Nations. “The assumption (which I share) that the UN is on balance a good thing is one that many do not accept,” one commenter wrote. “So the whole piece would come across to many (but not to me) as hopelessly biased right from the start.”
There is one bias for which WikiTribune could theoretically correct, which is the pervasive prejudice present to some degree in every reporter’s heart: the desire for the biggest story, the most clicks, the fancy prize, the highest ratio of Facebook shares. Wales has said in interviews that his subscription model will eliminate the incentive for clickbait, and that may be true — though Wikipedia editors continue to squabble over prominence even though they are unpaid.
While insisting that WikiTribune will be “neutral,” “objective,” or free of “bias,” Wales is denying the Greatest Fact of All. There is no such thing as neutral. There is no such thing as objective. To attempt to eliminate bias is to embark on a journey down a rabbithole that leads further and further from the truth. WikiTribune says it has hired a staff of 10 journalists led by launch editor Peter Bale, a veteran of CNN. That choice alone will be an automatic turnoff for Breitbart readers and many Trump supporters. WikiTribune is already biased to hell.