DUBLIN—When Dublin university student Shane Fitzgerald posted a poetic but phoney quote on Wikipedia, he said he was testing how our globalized, increasingly Internet-dependent media was upholding accuracy and accountability in an age of instant news.
His report card: Wikipedia passed. Journalism flunked.
The sociology major’s made-up quote, which he added to the Wikipedia page of Maurice Jarre hours after the French composer’s death March 28, flew straight on to dozens of U.S. blogs and newspaper websites in Britain, Australia, and India.
They used the fabricated material, Fitzgerald said, even though administrators at the free online encyclopedia quickly caught the quote’s lack of attribution and removed it, but not quickly enough to keep some journalists from cutting and pasting it first.
A full month went by and nobody noticed the editorial fraud. So Fitzgerald told several media outlets in an e-mail and the corrections began.
“I was really shocked at the results from the experiment,” Fitzgerald, 22, said yesterday in an interview a week after one newspaper at fault, The Guardian of Britain, became the first to admit its obituary writer lifted material straight from Wikipedia.
“I am 100 percent convinced that if I hadn’t come forward, that quote would have gone down in history as something Maurice Jarre said, instead of something I made up,” he added.
“It would have become another example where, once anything is printed enough times in the media without challenge, it becomes fact.”
So far, The Guardian is the only publication to issue a public mea culpa while others have eliminated or amended their online obituaries without any reference to the original version.
Or, in a few cases, still are citing Fitzgerald’s florid prose weeks after he pointed out its true origin.
“One could say my life itself has been one long soundtrack,” Fitzgerald’s fake Jarre quote read. “Music was my life, music brought me to life, and music is how I will be remembered long after I leave this life.
“When I die, there will be a final waltz playing in my head that only I can hear.”