Wikipedia-Conflict of Interest and Credibility

Posted: February 24, 2008 in Francke Case
Last year, in the fall of ’07, some folks at Wikipedia decided to step up and create a Wikipedia page on Michael Francke. Upon learning of this, I went to check it out. Immediately, I noticed some significant errors that I felt compelled to correct, and did so, making sure to post comments on what I specifically edited.
 
Interestingly, someone stepped up and cried foul, saying a "conflict of interest" was apparent because I was the webmaster of a website entitled Free Frank Gable.
 
I’m posting the correspondence that ensued because I find it amusing that this even occurred at all. Especially when others, including Kevin Francke, made edits and were not challenged at all.
 
As per Wikipedia standards, a website such as mine is not considered a "reliable source," although the media is, even though many of us could point out examples disputing that claim. But, as they say, you gotta go with something or someone.
 
I’ve thought about this Wikipedia thing concerning "credibility" for a few months now, and I’ve come to the conclusion that I’ve never had any credibility to lose.  Thus, my reason for putting everything out there the way I do. Either people are going to believe it or not. You’re only as credible as the listener makes you. You can tell the truth all day long, but if you’re not believed, what difference will it make?
 
Anyway, before I go on and end up getting into other issues, I’m posting the correspondence that ensued at Wikipedia over my attempt to correct some errors…
 
Comment by a Wiki user…
 

Since the editor continues to edit, please note that there is likely a conflict of interest with editor User:Freefrankgable with this article. Citing one’s own website violates this policy, not to mention the website does not meet the guidelines as a reliable source. Saying the defense did not adequetley cross needs to be backed up, since that is a judgment call. Also saying the prosecution purchased the knife what wrong when compared to the article you sourced where it says the state police criminalist purchased the knife. District attorneys work with the state police, the state police do not work for district attorneys. Stating otherwise violates WP:NPOV. Please refrain from editing this article, and make any suggested changes on this talk page. Aboutmovies 17:52, 15 October 2007 (UTC)

My reply… 

I am user freefrankgable. I’m new to wikipedia and still learning. I made some edits and feel I did a good job of describing what I edited. I’ve been told by the editor user:engineerscotty that my edits are within bounds, and have been made aware of the conflict of interest guidelines. I did not cite my website in the reference section. Somebody else did. I understand the guidelines for reliable sources, and recognize my website doesn’t fall within that category for wikipedia standards, however, the content on the "man in the pinstriped suit" page of my website is composed of a statement coming directly from the dome building employee. Can’t get more reliable than that I would think.

As for a conflict of interest…I beg to differ. My website is not so much a champion of Frank Gable’s plight as it is a champion of due process for all, and a champion of justice for Michael Francke and his family.

I’m currently searching for something to back up my claim of the defense not adequately cross examining Jodie Swearingen. Obviously it can be found in the trial transcripts, and if my memory serves me correctly, I don’t think Jodie was cross examined at all by the defense.

As I said, I’m new to this here, but trying to help. Engineerscotty has done an exceptional job of putting this page together. It didn’t require many edits. Please let me know if I can be of any further assistance. —Freefrankgable 01:33, 16 October 2007 (UTC)

Comment by Wiki user… 

Remember that conflict of interest is not only an actual conflict, but one that is perceived: "and the potential motivations of an individual" thus an editor with a name of freefrankgable (Frank Gable being the person rightly or wrongly convicted convicted of killing the subject of this article) clearly shows there is the potential for "incompatibility between the purpose of Wikipedia to produce a neutral, verifiable encyclopedia…" Again, its often not that an editor actually edits contrary to the Wikipedia goal of neutral editing, it is the appearance. Which with the item I tagged about the cross exam comes across as a non-neutral opinion, tends to continue this appearance. I have absoulutely no stake in the presentation of the material, you do. I remember the murder, but do not know anyone involved in the entire affair, though I have driven by the building a few times on my way to Lancaster. I honestly do not care who killed Francke, my only concern here is that Wikipedia guidelines/policies are followed. Most of the material is fine, but the conflict of interest remains.

As to sources for the tagged statement about cross, FYI the trial transcript would likely not help, and likely nothing will truely back up the statement as is. I doubt anyone at the trial said witness X was not "adequately cross-examine[d]" as this is a value judgment, and a defense lawyer at trial is not going to concede this and the prosection wouldn’t bring it up either. Gable and his lawyers may claim the cross was inadequate on appeal, but that is just a claim and would have to be presented as such. As a value judgment, it will have to be presented as such and not as a fact. Even failure to cross does not mean inadequate as often times (or so my evidence professor tells us in class) lawyers strategically do not cross examine witnesses. With the reliable source regarding the man in pinstripes and the statement from the mouth of the witness, actually no that is not a reliable source. You claim it came from that person, but (and don’t take this personally) why should we believe you? First hand accounts are not considered reliable sources on Wikipedia, from anyone including me. For all we know it could have been completely made up. We tend to at Wikipedia trust the printed mainstream media because of perceived fact checking and reliability, but even then there can be problems. But its the process that matters.

In all honesty, if the reason someone is editing an article is to promote some cause, then that is the wrong reason and they should not edit articles on that cause. It just leads to too many issues. That’s why I tend to avoid rival law school articles. It’s not that I will edit in biased manner, its that my motivations could be rightly questioned. Aboutmovies 02:52, 16 October 2007 (UTC)

Note from Rob: Figures I’d get a response such as this from a law student who probably can’t wait to get a job as a deputy prosecutor.

Comment by Wiki user… 
 

There are many interpretations of WP:COI floating around there, I have a somewhat different take. I believe that it’s a truism that in many cases, the people with the most knowledge of a subject and the people with the strongest opinions about it have a lot of overlap. This condition is by no means unique to Wikipedia, but also affects journalism, academia, politics, etc. In my view, disclosure of bias (or potential bias) is the most important thing; it makes everyone involved aware that there could be a conflict, and those with an opposing opinion or a dedication to neutrality are alerted that it’s worth keeping an eye out, and the process of discussion begins. That process, though it often seems like a negative "conflict," is often the starting point for very well-balanced and well-sourced articles; going through the "conflict" often produces excellent results.

Choosing a name like "freefrankgable" strikes me as a very efficient way of disclosing potential bias, and your willingness to engage in discussion is a good thing. I personally would prefer to see you continue to edit the article, so long as you can make a reasonable effort to resist any temptation to promote your web site or your point of view overzealously. –Pete 04:22, 16 October 2007 (UTC)

My reply… 

Some good points made here, and well received. Naturally, I’m partial to Pete’s assessment. Thanks for recognizing. Probably best to remove the part about the defense’s lack of adequate cross based on Aboutmovies points.

What compelled me to edit that part in the first place was a statement originally posted saying Jodie never testified at trial when in fact she was called to the stand by the prosecution. Same with my other edits. Minor changes where needed to keep it more factual, such as dates, location of where the body was found, length of time after the Francke murder that Natividad was killed, adding the additional count of murder to the six aggravated counts, adding a list of accomplishments by Francke, and changing Oregon journalist to Phil Stanford, Oregon COLUMNIST.

Which leads me to ask…is a columnist considered a reliable source? Not trying to initiate "conflict" here, but it saddens me that a citizen of Oregon says he doesn’t care who killed Francke. Michael Francke served the citizens of Oregon honorably and gave his life in the line of duty by attempting to expose an element of corruption within his department and possibly abroad. To not care is a disservice and an insult to the memory of Michael Francke and his family. In my opinion it’s up to every Oregonian to finish what Michael set out to accomplish. It is that opinion which compelled me to create the freefrankgable website in the first place.

Get Gable’s conviction overturned and law enforcement can then initiate new investigations.–Freefrankgable 19:02, 16 October 2007 (UTC)

Comment by Wiki user… 

The line between a "columnist" and a "journalist" is a bit slippery; some consider newspaper columnists to be "journalists" (they do have to an answer to an editor, and some of them do engage in fieldwork–even if what they write is interspersed with opinion and such); others consider columnists to be a species apart from reporters and editors. Columnist is more accurate today–though Stanford appears to at least have done some fieldwork in the past. At any rate, I haven’t seen User:Freefrankgable make any edits that are inappropriate, unless you think that he is unqualified by his manifest opinion on the case to edit the article at all. I don’t; and I don’t a problem with persons with an interest in an article’s subject from editing the article, provided they a) disclose their biases (he does), b) don’t insert gratuitious POV (he doesn’t), and c) respond and respect community feedback and consensus (so far, so good). —EngineerScotty 20:15, 16 October 2007 (UTC)

 

I consider a columnist to be a kind of journalist, so regarding the article, probably best to use the more specific term. And yes, as Scotty points out, a columnist – even though he trades on his opinion – is still accountable to a news organization’s need to preserve its reputation for accuracy. There are no firm lines about what qualifies as a "reliable source"; it varies depending on the context, subject to the judgment of the editors working on the article. Certainly a sensitivity to whether a writer’s main trade is based in expressing opinions, or in establishing facts, is called for; but it is one among many factors in evaluating the suitability of a source. For all the discussion of policy and guidelines around here, there is simply no formulaic approach that will yield an excellent encyclopedia article. Sources must be considered on their own merits regarding a certain article or a certain point.

In this article, I think we’re fortunate, in that different news organizations have clearly staked out and defended divergent opinions. That makes the task of maintaining a neutral point of view easier — as long as we substantially cite both the Tribune and the Oregonian (and others of course), we should be in pretty good shape. –Pete 21:36, 16 October 2007 (UTC)

Comment by Rob Taylor… 

I have added a pic of Mr. Francke. This pic was given to me by the Francke family. I trust I have complied with the proper licensing policies. If not, then let me know and tell me what I did wrong. The pic is a bit large. If someone can size it down, please do so.–Freefrankgable 16:38, 23 October 2007 (UTC)

Comment by Wiki user… 

I’ve resized it so it looks nice. At any rate, whoever took the picture needs to be the one who is willing to release it under GFDL; you cannot release a photo that you possess (have a copy of) but do not hold the copyright to. If whoever in the Francke family was the photographer is OK with this, that should be OK. IANAL, so I don’t know if any additional documentation is needed; if it is, the WikiPolice will pay you a visit.  🙂 (Don’t worry about that–the worst thing that might happen is the picture might be taken down.) —EngineerScotty 16:51, 23 October 2007 (UTC)

 

At present, nothing that was discussed has been deleted, and although the credibility of my website was discussed, it still remains listed as a source of information.

I haven’t bothered to make any other edits simply because I think everyone over there tries a little to hard or something like that. Not to mention the fact that since they rely so heavily on the media for credible sources, well, that kinda makes Wikipedia less credible in my eyes.

Still, the folks that put the page together did a wonderful job, and my hat’s off to them for their effort.

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