- What news is not on English Wikinews
An essay by Laura Hale
What is news? What is journalism? What is reporting? The answer to these questions essentially outline how Wikinews, and specifically English Wikinews, has to address in how the project requires articles to be written, reviewed and published. It is how the project answers the question in terms of how the community organizes, functions, prioritizes. This essay will explore that some by exploring what news is not.
It is worthwhile to discuss what news is not. First, news is not press releases. Press releases are advertisements. They are invitations to write about a specific topic by providing information that is generally uncritical of the organization releasing it, and often has information that is difficult to independently verify. Sometimes, press releases are used and abused by some media organizations who change the author name and release the press release as their own original report. In other cases, text and images from a press release may be integrated into an article without proper attribution. In other cases, the text may be completely reworked but all the essential points of the press release appear uncritically in the published article. Press releases are not news, and uncritical repeating of press release content is not news. It does not matter if the press release is from the Wikimedia Foundation or Habitat for Humanity or Save the Children or McDonalds or Facebook. Wikinews does not publish or allow uncritical repeating of articles relying solely on press releases because it is not news.
News is not opinion. News is not commentary of the social analysis where the reporter conveys their own opinion on what happened. Analysis and commentary are two functions some news organizations do, but they are not news. This actually goes a bit to the heart of the definition of what news is: News is the neutral reporting of facts. That these facts can subsequently be and often are re-purposed is fine. It is part of the reason why news should exist: to assist in creating informed citizenry. Opinions, commentary and analysis where the reporter arrives at a conclusion based on some facts does not do that. Rather than inform citizens of facts, opinion pieces inform citizens of others opinions about events in a way that masks or camouflages the facts by downplaying them so the opinion can be conveyed. The most obvious example to highlight the problematic nature of this uses the quote "One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter" by Gerald Seymour in his 1975 book Harry's Game. The choice of either phrase is fundamental non-neutral, and the preference to use one form over another is often done to convey a point. A recent and relevant example of this at work is how the United States and Russia both chose to portray the ongoing conflict in Syria. A second recent and relevant example is the portrayal of Edward Snowden following his disclosure of classified documents. The facts around both situations allow for readers to create their own opinion. Selections of non-neutral opinion laden word already signals to the readers how they should interpret the facts. “Snowden, labelled a traitor by President Obama, released the documents” conveys a much different message than “The traitor Snowden released the documents.” A reporter’s individual opinion, be it that Snowden is a traitor who put USA lives at risk or that Assad is a beleaguered president fighting against terrorists trying to destabilize his legitimate government, are not news. News is about neutrally conveying facts for the reader to reach these conclusions independently.
News is not gossip. A quick browse through a few dictionary definitions of gossip says the definition for gossip includes conveying unimportant information especially about people’s private lives, the passing along of information for malicious purposes, talking about unimportant things, informal talk for informal situations, the wagging of a tongue, potentially untrue reports especially about people’s private lives, the spreading of private untrue rumours. News should convey verifiable, factual information of importance to the public. Gossip sites are rarely referred to as news sites for good reason. When was the last time someone talked about the factual important information they found on Perez Hilton’s website and how they used it to inform their own opinions and potentially act on it? Compare the content of Perez Hilton’s website to the local crime beat and traffic accidents in local publications. The latter convey neutral factually useful information that can be used to inform decisions on personal safety. Liam Hemsworth taking selfies? Not so much unless you are using it to inform yourself about whether or not it is worth following Hemsworth on Twitter. Gossip is rumour based, often dubious as to accuracy and not of real importance. Gossip is, in and of itself, now news.
News is not fanboyisms. Separate from the issue of advertising, a lot of times it is easy to fall into fanboyisms and have this impact a story. News is not saying that the Japanese government just inaugurated the biggest and coolest boat into their naval fleet since World War II, and that it can hold 120 helicopters and a whole lot of soldier. News is not excitedly reporting how great news that Apple has set the release date for the iPhone 6 that will play FM radio, cook your breakfast using a special laser beam that allows for the perfect cooking of eggs, and has a new wearable attachment that regulates your pacemaker which is why the lines for the new iPhone have already started! News is not how fantastic it was that Ronaldo scored three goals for Real Madrid to put the team ahead of Barcelona in La Liga play. Different than press releases and advertisements, fanboyism takes a non-neutral position of being overly enthusiastic about a topic and using facts as a way of sharing joy with others who share the same passions and views. There is no purpose of conveying information for creating informed opinions to possibly be acted on, because the fanboyism nature makes it about insiders sharing their pre-existing plans and views. News does not do that. Good news does not treat people as insiders or outsiders, but is neutrally accessible to all readers.
News is not uncritically repeating of what other news organizations said. That’s what Wikipedia is for. News should be critical, and it should not just be uncritical repetition of what others say. In some ways, uncritical repetition of other news organization reporting is no different than other non-news reporting masquerading as journalism including press releases, advertising, fanboyism and blogging.
News is not blogging. Most blogging does a variety of the things conveyed above. Blogging sometimes shares uncritically information from press releases. Blogging sometimes is about fanboyisms. Blogging often is about sharing a particular point of view and putting forth a particular agenda. Blogging often involves a lot of gossip. Blogging often involves sharing personal information of little interest. Blogging often contains information that cannot be verified. Blogging is often written in an informal style. Blogging is often written from a first person perspective. Blogging often contains analysis. These are all signs that something is not news.
Ironically, all these types of not news can be used as sources to report on news. At the same time, all of these types of not news are often confused by others as news because news itself is often presented amongst other types of content.
Newspapers do not just publish news. News television and radio often has a lot of not news. What newspapers do publish is news, commentary and opinions, advocacy, analysis and advertising. In the case of Wikinews, the only thing Wikinews publishes is news. Wikinews does not do other types things most news organization do. This further adds to the problem in understanding what news is, and how Wikinews delivers the news.
Wikinews hosts news. Broadly speaking, news on Wikinews is defined as the factual, verifiable and neutral reporting on an event that took place in the last 48 hours that is accessible to both a local and global audience. News is based on a specific event, where relevance and focus for the article are clearly established in the first paragraph.
For our project, news is factual and verifiable. If you cannot verify it, then you do not report it as fact. Rumors should never be presented as fact, but should be attributed to the source. “According to Superman, Batman is having an affair with Robin that is negatively impacting Batman’s ability to fight crime.” That is how you report facts based on rumors. You can then leave it to the reader to determine if the source is worth trusting for that fact of one person or organization’s opinion. News is neutral, and by neutral, we mean the neutral reporting of fact. Wikinews does not mean neutral to mean “articles align with our point of view.” You can write about same-sex marriage without implicitly endorsing or condemning it by reporting only facts, attributing opinions to whom they belong so the readers can judge the relevance of the opinion, etc. A person affiliated with white pride groups who believes the United States government should be overthrown because of its repugnant views on immoral same-sex relationships should not be presented as a neutral reporter on the topic. A paid spokeperson should not be presented as a neutral reporter on a topic. Neutrality is about framing a person’s opinion being presented so as to frame things correctly, and to make sure that fringe and alternative views are not given equal weight where their relevance is not established. Wikinews strives for true neutrality and will issue corrections when we fall down on this.
News is factual and verifiable. Unlike Wikipedia, Wikinews does not allow the use of offline sources. Reviewers must be able to fact check and to a limited degree, every reader should be able to do the exact same fact checking. This can be done using sources from other news organizations, hand written notes by the reporter, audio and video files where we can authenticate the source, press releases, social media postings, documents that have been published, etc. If the facts cannot be verified, we do not wait for someone to add a source. The verifying source exists at the time of publishing and either the information gets removed prior to publication or the article is sent back to the journalists for additional work. If you cannot find the sources on the article itself, you can always check the talk page to see the journalist reporters section to find those sources.
News is recent, relevant and accessible to both a global and local audience. One of our contributors writes a lot of articles about traffic accidents in Northern Ireland and Wales. These articles are written so someone in Kenya could understand the important details of what happened. They are written so locals know what happen. In both cases, the traffic articles could be used by locals and Kenyans to decide if they want to drive down a stretch of road that had a traffic fatality. The Kenyan may never need this news, but they will have been informed about it. News is also recent. Wikinews does not report on traffic accidents that took place a month ago, a year ago, five years ago or traffic accidents that took place during The Great War. Wikinews reports only on traffic accidents that took place very recently, in the past 24 to 48 hours. Facts do not cease to be facts, but news does cease to be news. The relevance of news diminishes the further you get away from the event. Posting an article about a planned trip by President Bush to Melbourne, Australia during his presidency is not relevant to people trying to make decisions that could be impacted by the planned trip, because the planned trip already happened. And you do not go back and refactor the news article about the President’s trip which talked about commuter traffic concerns and city security plans to deal with the trip to talk about how the President’s trip actually went. They are two separate stories, with different historical records. The one story may not be news now, but it was at the time and the originally story needs to be preserved. Refactoring facts, perspective, sources for news stories after the original was published is not news. It is tantamount to historical revisionism. In the example of the President’s trip, it would involve hiding the local concerns about traffic before the President’s arrival. That sort of refactoring should be left up to encyclopedia writers and historians who have time to sit down and accumulate material for years to synthesize it to get a better understanding of other topics. Ironically, those groups will likely rely on news articles and the same sources used in news articles to do that. If the news stories, unaltered, were not there, they could not do that work.
Wikinews is a pure news site. It is not a project dedicated to opinions, commentary, advocacy, gossip and adverting. Wikinews is a project dedicated to the neutral, factual, verifiable reporting of recent facts for a local and global audience so the facts can better inform the reader’s interests and decision making. It is news written by volunteers who try their hardest to uphold journalism's highest ideals.