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Ken Lay and the trouble with Wikipedia

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Ken Lay and the trouble with Wikipedia

Ken Lay and the trouble with Wikipedia

Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia that anyone with an Internet connection can edit, is great for an interesting read.

And, for the most part, it's pretty good when it comes to doing research.

But when big news is actually breaking, Wikipedia might not be your best bet for finding factual information.

On Wednesday, Reuters reported that the death of former Enron Corp. chief Ken Lay at the age of 64 caused rampant confusion on Wikipedia and underscored the challenges facing the online encylopedia.

As the news was breaking, the site's entry regarding Lay apparently offered a variety of causes for his passing, which turned out to be coronary artery disease, according to Mesa County (Colo.) Coroner Robert Kutzman.

Kutzman said that the death of Lay, who six weeks ago was found guilty of fraud in one of the biggest corporate scandals in U.S. history and was facing a long prison sentence, showed "no evidence of foul play."

However, if you were reading Wikipedia on Wednesday morning, you wouldn't have known that.

According to Reuters, shortly after news outlets began reporting Lay's death around 9 a.m. CDT, the "facts" were added to his online biography.

It turned out, though, that they could more accurately have been described as rumors.

At 9:06 a.m., Wikipedia's entry for Lay said he died "of an apparent suicide."

At 9:08 a.m., it said he died at his Aspen, Colo. home "of an apparent [[heart attack] or suicide.]."

Within the same minute, it said the cause of death was "yet to be determined."

At 9:09 a.m., it said "no further details have been officially released" about the death.

Two minutes later, it said, "The guilt of ruining so many lives finally [sic] led him to his suicide."

At 9:12 a.m., that was replaced by, "According to Lay's pastor the cause was a 'massive coronary' heart attack."

By 9:39 a.m., Lay's entry said, "Speculation as to the cause of the heart attack lead many people to believe it was due to the amount of stress put on him by the Enron trial." That statement was later dropped.

By early Wednesday afternoon, the entry said Lay was pronounced dead at Aspen Valley Hospital, citing the Pitkin, Colo. sheriff's department. It said he apparently died of a massive heart attack, citing KHOU-TV in Houston.

And as of Thursday morning, the -- apparently -- final entry said, "While vacationing in Colorado on July 5, 2006, Kenneth Lay died from coronary artery disease. The Pitkin Sheriff’s Department confirmed that officers were called to Lay’s house in Old Snowmass, Colorado, near Aspen at 1:41 AM MDT (3:41 AM EDT). He was taken to Aspen Valley Hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 3:11 AM MDT."

Reuters reported that officials at Wikipedia, which claims to have 13,000 active writers and editors, did not immediately return phone and e-mail requests for comment.

The Web site does warn users that "newer articles may still contain significant misinformation, unencyclopedic content, or vandalism."

And Ken Lay, apparently, was a case in point.

Post Thu 06 Jul, 2006 10:22 am 
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