“The news is broken and we can fix it”, says Jimmy Wales, cofounder of Wikipedia.
He promises us that his new venture, Wikitribune , will fix the news. He tells us that it will fight and expose “fake news” and bring back our trust, as readers, in news organisations. No more gatekeeping, he says. Volunteers from the public will work alongside professional journalists to fact check news stories and re-establish news credibility.
All of that is going to be achieved through crowdfunding.
No ads, no dependence on clicks, Wales explains. Wikitribune is going to be free of an owner’s editorial control. Instead, he promises us something entirely different: community control.
Wales is telling us that to “support Wikitribune means ensuring that journalists only write articles based on facts that they can verify”. We are going to be able to see their sources, he claims. It is going to be evidence based journalism. The community support is going to come in the form of crowdfunding and Wales admits that Wikitribune will need to recruit at least 10 full-time journalists for this “new tool” to materialise.
In short, what Wales is trying to tell us is that “citizen journalists” will be working alongside professional journalists to bring us accurate, fact-based news in response to what is coined as “fake news”.
Plagiarism vs journalism
What Wales does not tell us is whether those “citizen journalists” or “community members”, as he identifies them, are going to be paid?
Having community members feed in the news and then having these news items edited and authored by professional journalists, will make the end product closer to plagiarism than to real journalism – except that the original author of those stories will be aware of what is going to happen and will probably indirectly consent to have his/her story edited and authored by a professional journalist.
Wales claims equality between the volunteers and the journalists, but what the model seems to suggest is a hierarchy of importance among authors.
Being free from advertisement and ownership pressures is a dream for every journalist, but open source unlimited funding might not make it so.
Nevertheless, a difference between professional and citizen journalists in terms of skills do exist – that is why we still train professional journalists in graduate schools. To have community members verify sources and facts and maybe have them author stories without payment does not make them equal to professional journalists.
So the question pops up again, are they going to be paid for the work they do? If so, they should not be labelled as “volunteers”.
Besides, we might be faced with another ethical dilemma here.
Journalism students and journalism schools’ fresh graduates, who are seeking internships and work experience, might join such a venture and end up being labelled as “volunteers”. They would be producing work of a professional journalist, but will still not be paid for their work.
The ability to combat fake news lies in having a team of fact checkers. They have become an essential support mechanism for journalism. The size of a fact-checking team depends on the size of the news organisation. If Wikitribune aims to cover global news, a team of 10 journalists won’t be enough to carry on the job as other journalists have already indicated.
As a result, the platform will have to rely heavily on “volunteers” and “community members” to fact check news stories and, in that, I see a model closer to “exploitation” than anything else.
Repeating Wikipedia’s mistakes
A model in which “anyone can flag or fix an article and submit it for review” might not be the best way to tackle fake news or to tackle inaccurate news stories, considering that those 10 journalists might be over swamped with work and they might not have the time to do a proper review.
In this system, we will encounter mistakes similar to those we have been seeing in Wikipedia. Those mistakes tend to cause the same harm as fake news. Mistakes in Wikipedia, in the end, are mere lies listed as facts.
Meddling with Wikipedia accounts has become a tool in media wars between political and economic rivals and also between countries that are in conflict over territory or that have conflicting historical narratives.
We know that in the coverage of politics, for example, fake news stories are sometimes disseminated by figures of authority. That is why journalists need fact checkers. Fact checking has become a field of its own, with its own tools, software and training. It might not be a simple straight forward job a journalist can do, or has time to do.
I’m not suggesting Wikipedia has not revolutionised the world of encyclopaedias, but I – just like many of my academic colleagues – still deter my students from using Wikipedia as a research source. Wikitribune may not be similar to Wikipedia in this sense, but it is a thought to keep in mind.
Open-source unlimited funding
A question is also to be raised in relation to Wikitribune’s financial independence. Is there a limit to how much a supporter can donate? If not, how would Wikitribune guarantee continuity of independence if supporters, who may have “donate” a lot of money to this venture, have a say in what stories they want covered and matter to them? Sustainability of crowdfunding is an ongoing debate and large sum donations might jeopardise the independent, free and transparent news platform the founder is aiming to achieve.
Factual, truthful, honest and evidence-based journalism is what professional journalism is about. It is what good journalism is about.
It is true that “the news is broken”, journalism is broken, but we need to be more realistic about what we can achieve with suggested platforms such as Wikitribune and what we cannot achieve.
Considering all of the above, this “community control” approach cannot fix the broken news. This venture raises more questions than it gives answers. Involving the community in flagging fake news stories is always a good idea. Readers and audiences are what should matter to journalists and news producers. Being free from advertisement and ownership pressures is a dream for every journalist, but open-source unlimited funding might not make it so.
Dr Zahera Harb is senior lecturer in International Journalism at City, University of London. She worked previously as a broadcast Journalist in Lebanon for local and international news organisations. She is board member of Ethical Journalism Network and several other professional and academic editorial boards. Harb has published extensively on Middle Eastern media and politics.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.