John Seigenthaler, Sr., father of NBC's John Seigenthaler, checked out his Wikipedia entry one day.
Edited "The Tennessean." Check.
Worked for Robert Kennedy. Righto.
"Thought to have been directly involved in the Kennedy assassinations." Um, no.
The information was not only false, it was defamatory. Trouble is, Internet sites are exempt from libel laws. The best you can do is try to sue the Internet service provider and subpoena their client list. Good luck with that.
This now highly publicized error has sparked a debate about the validity of such sources as Wikipedia. That site, and others like it, are considered "open source" Websites. That essentially means that anyone can contribute and share information. Sometimes it's correct, and sometimes it's not.
Wikipedia is the world's biggest encyclopedia, available online in 10 languages with literally millions of entries. It is maintained by a community of volunteers, each contributing articles but also monitoring a watch list of other entries.
That said, there is no official fact checking process in place at Wikipedia.
I spoke to the site's founder, Jimmy Wales, by phone today. He told me that, "this sort of thing is extremely rare for Wikipedia. We fully agree with John Seigenthaler" that this was a huge error.
The problem, according to Wales, is that Internet service providers won't do anything about abusive customers. This is the reason for spam, viruses, and erroneous information on the Web.
I asked him about another example of "abuse" on his site. Former MTV News man Adam Curry, now a podcasting guru, apparently edited the Wiki entry on podcasting to reflect a larger share of the credit for launching the trend.
He said he was aware of that incident, as well, but that the strong Wikipedia community is usually able to root out these changes when they occur. Wales says that 75% of the edits to his site are made by 2% of the users, his "core group."
The Internet reference sites are the staple nowadays for every school-aged child, as well as the adults who do searches for work or personal growth. Knowing now that you can't believe everything you read, how can we safely navigate the Web and use it to its fullest, most credible potential?
First, I would recommend avoiding open source sites. I love Wikipedia because there is little something for everyone. Read it for recreation or fun, but not for homework.
Stick with established news sites and reference sites. Before I get a litany of emails criticizing this, I will add the disclaimer that MSM and websites like Yahoo make mistakes, too. No doubt. But if you are dealing with a site that pays writers and journalists and has an edit process, one that doesn't allow casual readers to change entries, you will be safer.
Finally, use multiple sources, and be sure that one of them is a good, old fashioned hard copy. Remember books? Encourage your kids to use the public library or the library at their school for more than just Web surfing. Looking up a fact in a printed record is still the single, most reliable way to conduct research.
Today on the show, a discussion about covering war, and how this battle in Iraq has changed things. We'll also dig into the potential for Al Qaeda sleeper cells to strike America. Join us.