Stand behind your work

I can't believe I'm writing two posts in a row on the subject of netiquette (neither NaturallySpeaking nor spell check are raising any red flags about that word so I guess I can roll with it), but another interesting situation came up this week that I thought I would write about it.

About a year ago now, I completed work on a wiki for The Oakland Post student newspaper.  There are portions of it that are a little (okay, a lot) out of date because there was a lot of administration changeover just as I finished and before I could figure out a plan for training the rest of the staff to update the resource. It started out as an individual class project in media design that I envisioned reporters could use to get up to speed on new beats, contribute analysis of public university documents and learn background on important university officials. (It could still be used this way with a little work.)

In determining which people to profile, I selected the top 50 highest salaried employees at Oakland University. If an individual was in that rarefied air, I reasoned they are probably doing some important work at the university.

If you are unaware, the great thing about a wiki is that anyone can edit it meaning you can gain a variety of perspectives on a subject. The bad thing about a wiki is that anyone can edit it. To be well executed, the wiki must be carefully policed for bad information.

One of the things I included in every profile template was a section on controversies. While not always bent on dredging up the past, a good journalist should know pertinent details regarding the backgrounds of those they cover. It is not unheard of for history to repeat itself.

I finished the project around this time a year ago and I haven't touched it in any significant fashion since August. Needless to say, I was a bit surprised when I got the email that someone had edited one of the pages.

Someone had deleted the controversy information on one of the profile pages. The action was undertaken by an anonymous OU IP address.

There are legitimate reasons for anonymity. These might include free speech concerns in countries with oppressive authoritarian regimes or maybe blowing the whistle on government wrongdoing.

However, in a database such as this that anyone can edit, it can be important to know who last edited information in order to better judge the likelihood of its accuracy.

During my time at The Post, we went to great lengths to verify our reporting. I have no reason to believe this practice has changed or will change anytime soon. For example, we had a rule (except in very rare breaking news and emergency circumstances) that every story must have two independent sources.

Given the time and verification work put into articles, information should not be removed lightly. I'm not saying errors of fact don't happen. We're human and probably every journalist who is worked in this profession for any length of time has found themselves the subject of the corrections corner. However, when a person deletes something without leaving an explanation or a name, it becomes very hard to judge their credibility.

I put the original version of the page back. I trust the reporter whose byline it was did their verification work.

It's possible that someone didn't want this information on the public Internet. The irony here is that nothing ever came of the incident for the faculty being discussed. It was probably minor office politics in the grand scheme. By trying to suppress it, they bring more attention to themselves.

If you're going to contribute, or remove information from a public database, put your name behind it. It's better for all involved.