Don’t trust Wikipedia

By all accounts, the Vancouver Canucks had fully supported former winger and enforcer Rick Rypien through the depths of his depression.

When Rypien, 27, was found dead in his southern Alberta home on Monday, the result of what the RCMP determined to be a “non-suspicious sudden death,” the Canucks organization was devastated.

Though Rypien had taken an extended leave from the team last November to deal with then undisclosed “personal matters,” and had recently signed as a free agent with the Winnipeg Jets, he had played six seasons with the Canucks.

“Rick has been a beloved member of the Canucks’ family for the past six years. Rick was a great teammate and friend to our players, coaches and staff,” said a statement from the Canucks

Sadly, an egregious error in the Star’s Tuesday Sports section report about Rypien’s death added to the Canucks’ grief.

As the Star’s subsequent apology published on Page 2 Wednesday made clear, the article misquoted Canucks general manager Mike Gillis as having referred to Rypien as “crazy” in an interview last November with Vancouver Sun columnist Iain MacIntyre. Gillis never said any such thing to MacIntyre or anyone else. Rather, he expressed the utmost support for Rypien at a difficult time in what has now been confirmed as his longtime battle with depression.

Understandably, Gillis and the entire Canucks organization were enraged by the Star’s mistake. The team issued a statement blasting the Star for publishing inaccurate, unfair information.

“To lose a hockey game is one thing; to lose a member of the Canucks family like this is quite another,” T.C. Carling, the Canucks VP of communications told me. “This terrible error by the Toronto Star has made this even more difficult for everyone.”

How did such a mistake happen?

This was a rookie’s mistake, but one I know even experienced journalists at other news organizations have made in recent years: The intern reporter assigned near deadline to write about Rypien found the false information attributed to the Vancouver Sun on Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia that anyone can edit.

He failed to properly verify its accuracy.

Had he done so, he would have discovered that the Gillis quote was bogus. Someone had tampered with the authentic Gillis quote from the Vancouver Sun to make it appear as if Gillis had indeed called the troubled player “crazy.”

Michael Woods, the 23-year-old intern who wrote the story, has learned a tough lesson about the human impact of a journalist’s mistake. He, too, is devastated by his error.

“I’m not going to make excuses. It was an awful mistake, I did not do my due diligence,” said Woods. “Wikipedia is one of the places I often go for a primer on any subject but I had never quoted from it.

“I do know that anyone can tamper with Wikipedia and I keep going over this in my mind wondering why I used that information,” he said. “I think I told myself that because the information was attributed to the Vancouver Sun it had to be right.”

Sports editor Jon Filson was horrified by this error and offered his personal apology to the Canucks. “This harms a lot of people at a time when they are struggling with a big loss of a player who the team had gone out of its way to support through a difficult time.”

Rob Grant, the editor who worked with Woods on the story, was not aware that the reporter had found the Gillis quote on Wikipedia. Woods’ story attributed the quote to the Vancouver Sun and the editor quite rightly regarded this established, mainstream news source as reliable.

Most journalists well understand that while Wikipedia can be a valid starting point for general information, it is not a reliable source. Even Wikipedia warns users: “We do not expect you to trust us.

“It is the nature of an ever-changing work like Wikipedia that while some articles are of the highest quality of scholarship, others are admittedly complete rubbish,” a Wikipedia posting states.

In light of this “humiliating” mistake, the Star’s editor, Michael Cooke, sent a memo to the entire newsroom this week as a reminder of the Star’s policy requiring information obtained from Wikipedia to be verified elsewhere.

“User-generated digital sources, including the online encyclopedia Wikipedia, are not stand-alone, authoritative sources of information and should never be used as sole sources,” the policy says.

Said Cooke in his memo: “I think we all know this, and I am particularly aware because of my own Wiki entry . . . up until a month ago it had me graduating from a university in New Zealand. I have never stepped foot in that country. Other errors remain.”

Inaccurate information, rumours and, indeed, outright lies abound on the Internet. Clearly, “who are you going to trust” for news and information is one of the most critical questions of our digital age.

To maintain our readers’ trust, journalists, of all people, must figure that out.

This column was originally published in the Toronto Star on Aug. 19, 2011.

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