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Was Wikipedia correct to censor news of David Rohde's capture?

By Matthew Shaer / June 29, 2009

In this file photo, David Rohde, center, interviews Afghans in the Helmand region in 2007. Rohde, who was kidnapped in 2008 by the Taliban, escaped to freedom earlier this month. According to the New York Times, Wikipedia agreed to bar edits to Rohde's page until the reporter was freed.

File photo/AFP

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The escape of David Rohde, a New York Times reporter captured last November by the Taliban, has today sparked a fiery debate over media censorship in the open source age. At stake is the Times' decision not just to tamp down on any news of Rodhe's kidnapping, but on updates to Rohde's Wikipedia page – a feat that was apparently accomplished with the complicity of Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia.

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According to Richard Pérez-Peña, a media reporter for the Times, the broadsheet's top brass "believed that publicity would raise Mr. Rohde’s value to his captors as a bargaining chip and reduce his chance of survival." Over a several month period, with Wales leading the charge, Wikipedia editors were asked to scrub Rohde's page of any evidence of the kidnapping, which had been reported by a handful of smaller outlets and blogs.

Wales is quoted as saying he agreed to the Times' requests because no major newspaper had yet reported the capture of Rohde, a former reporter at The Christian Science Monitor. “We were really helped by the fact that it hadn’t appeared in a place we would regard as a reliable source,” Wales told Pérez-Peña. “I would have had a really hard time with it if it had.”

Blackout

As Dan Murphy wrote in these pages earlier this month, the idea of a media blackout is always controversial. In 2006, for instance, when Monitor reporter Jill Carroll was kidnapped in Iraq, the Monitor was criticized for requesting that the case stay temporarily out of the spotlight. "That effort ended after about two days," Murphy wrote, "with major news outlets saying they could not continue to sit on a significant story."

But the Wikipedia blackout has struck many as especially egregious. Wikipedia, these analysts say, was created as a collaborative project, where a large group of volunteers can share writing and editing privileges. "Anyone is welcome to add information, cross-references, or citations, as long as they do so within Wikipedia's editing policies and to an appropriate standard," reads an introduction posted on Wikipedia.

Flexibility

Among the most vocal critics of the Wikipedia blackout is Kit Eaton, a reporter for Fast Company. Writing today on the magazine's blog, Eaton argues that Wikipedia has permanently damaged its reputation as a "crowd-based and open-access information source":

Wikipedia isn't a traditional media outlet, and therefore has no hard or soft journalistic moral code to abide by, which means it can be more flexible in its actions – and the fact a life was at stake here is a mitigating fact. But Wales' excuse still sounds particularly weak. As a result, the next questions about Wikipedia are: What other news pieces is it hiding? And will users trust in the site as a news source take a hit?

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