From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Recentism is a phenomenon on Wikipedia where an article has an inflated or imbalanced focus on recent events. It is writing without an aim toward a long-term, historical view. This can result in, among others:

  • Articles overburdened with documenting controversy as it happens.
  • Articles created on flimsy, transient merits.
  • The muddling or diffusion of the timeless facets of a subject, previously recognized by Wikipedia consensus.
  • Impassioned discussions on talk pages that debate not just the notability of the recent event ("Is this topic of lasting importance?") but also where (if anywhere) it should receive coverage on Wikipedia.

Recentism is a symptom of Wikipedia's dynamic and immediate editorial process, and has positive aspects as well—up-to-date information on breaking news events, vetted and counter-vetted by enthusiastic volunteer editors, is something that no other encyclopedia can offer. But in the long-term, Wikipedia is not a newspaper, it is not an indiscriminate collection of information, articles should be written from a neutral point of view without editorial bias or article imbalance, and not every topic eventually meets the general notability guideline to merit its own stand-alone article.

What to do about it

Allegations of recentism should prompt consideration of proportion, balance, and due weight. Material may need to be moved, deleted, or added to. Certain articles might be merged or placed on Wikipedia:Articles for deletion; conversely, articles may need to be split into new articles for balance. Sometimes in-depth information on current events is more appropriately added to Wikinews, which can be reached here.

Over-use of recent material does not by itself mean that an article should be deleted, but the quick and contemporaneous passage of events may make any subject difficult to judge as actually notable enough for a permanent encyclopedia entry. Proper perspective sometimes requires maturity, judgment, and the passage of time.


News spikes

A news spike is a sudden mass interest in any current event, whereupon Wikipedians create and update articles on it, even if some readers later feel that the topic was not historically significant in any way. The result might be a well-written and well-documented neutral-point-of-view article on a topic that might hardly be remembered a month later (see Jennifer Wilbanks and the article's deletion debate). Still, these articles are valuable for future historical research.

An event that occurs in a certain geographic region might come to dominate an entire article about that region. For example, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina the New Orleans, Louisiana, article was inundated with day-by-day facts about the hurricane. The solution: an article on the Effect of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans was created to collect this quickly accumulating content.

Sometimes extreme weather or disasters can inspire a "recentist" article. Hurricane Katrina was a historic weather event, while 2006 United States heat wave and 2007 Western United States freeze might be considered recent documentations of summer and winter, respectively.

Articles about events that occurred before Wikipedia's creation in January 2001, or in its early years, may be poorly documented simply because there was never a "news spike" for the few contemporary volunteers that led to the creation and elaboration of any article.

Article imbalance

Subjects with a long history might be described in purely modern terms, even though they were actually more significant in the past than they would be today. Even when the topics remain significant, articles can cover the subject as if the most recent events were the salient, defining traits. For large-scale topics, such as Slavery, Marriage, or War, the stress might be on simply the last few centuries, though the subject matter of the article might have a history of thousands of years.

This tendency towards article imbalance is enhanced by difficulties of sourcing topics from the pre-Internet era. Many major journals, magazines, and news sources of that era are not online or not searchable. Also, major institutions (professional organizations, museums, political parties, schools and clubs of all kinds) have ceased to exist, making some reliable sources of the type that validate articles on contemporary topics unavailable. Conversely, many online sources, especially recent ones, are easily accessible from a simple web search.

Thus, a political candidate's biography might become bloated with specific details related to a particular, recent election. Long passages in an athlete's or an actor's biography might be devoted to detailed coverage of a recent controversy. With celebrities, an article about a rock music singer or actor who became famous decades ago for achievements on stage may focus almost exclusively on recent news reports of alleged scandals, infidelity, or recreational drug use—none of which are the Notability justification behind the creation of her or his article in the first place. For example, Wikipedia's article on English disk jockey and television presenter Jimmy Savile changed rapidly and substantially during October 2012, with over 700 edits to the article in that month alone compared to 85 for the rest of the year to that point. Eventually, a breakout article, Jimmy Savile sexual abuse scandal was required.

Debate over recentism

Any disagreement over whether to remove an article might also be related to Wikipedia's ongoing inclusionism-versus-deletionism debate. (Deletionists tend to view Wikipedia as a traditional, rigorous encyclopedia. Inclusionists tend to see it as a compendium of all knowledge, without limit.) Many editors identify as mergists, separatists, or some other more nuanced position, and they may have their own thoughts on dealing with recent material.

Recentism as a negative

Recentism in one sense—established articles that are bloated with event-specific facts at the expense of longstanding content—is considered a Wikipedia fault.

Wikipedia is not a newspaper. When dealing with contemporary subjects, editors should consider whether they are simply regurgitating media coverage of an issue or actually adding well-sourced information that will remain notable over time. Yes, unneeded content can be eliminated later, but a cluttered "first draft" of an article may degrade its eventual quality and a coherent orientation may not always be attained.

The second sense of recentism—the creation of a glut of new articles on a recent event—can result in a slap-dash approach to the subject and a rambling, disorganized look to the encyclopedia. Wikipedia is not an indiscriminate collection of information, and not every topic meets Wikipedia's general notability guideline to merit its own stand-alone article.

Recentism as a positive

Journalism is a first rough draft of history.
__Phil Graham

But in many cases, such content is a valuable preliminary stage in presenting information. Any encyclopedia goes through rough drafts; new Wikipedia articles are immediately published in what might be considered draft form: They can be—and are—improved in real time; these rapidly developing drafts may appear to be a clutter of news links and half-developed thoughts, but later, as the big picture emerges, the least relevant content ought to be—and often is—eliminated.

One example is the Pitcairn sexual assault trial of 2004, which was developed day by day as the trial and appeals process advanced. Eventually, when the process ended, later editors could place everything in perspective—while also retaining the chronological coverage as an exhaustive historical record. (As of March 2016 this article is still marked as "Cleanup Needed", showing that the editing procedure is never really ended.)

Collaborative editing on Wikipedia has resulted in a massive encyclopedia of comprehensive and well-balanced articles on the many current events of the twenty-first century. This record will be valuable to those in the future who seek to understand the history of this time period. In other words: "If we don't make sense of it today, someone else will struggle to make sense of it tomorrow."

One of Wikipedia's strengths is the collation and sifting through of vast amounts of reporting on current events, producing encyclopedia-quality articles in real time about ongoing events or developing stories: natural disasters, political campaigns and elections, wars, product releases, assassinations.

Finally, Wikipedia articles are often developed via on-line references, which may be temporary in nature. But by documenting timely material with reliable sources at the outset, more permanent sources will hopefully be found and used later.

Recentism as recruitment

Search engines drive a large amount of traffic to Wikipedia's articles about what were at the moment recent events—for example, the death of Ronald Reagan, the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and subsequent tsunami, the death of Pope John Paul II and election of a successor, the nomination of John Roberts to the Supreme Court of the United States, and newsy articles like those from other English-speaking countries.

What might seem at the time to be an excessive amount of information on recent topics actually serves the purpose of drawing in new readers—and among them, potential new Wikipedians. Example: Wikipedia received positive coverage[1] on the American National Public Radio program On the Media about its quick response to the London bombings of July 2005.

Recentist articles as case studies

The related articles that are written during a "recentist news frenzy" provide an in-depth look for interested readers. For example, the Terri Schiavo piece and its companion articles at Category:Terri Schiavo case provide a case-study outlook into how the state and federal governments in the United States interact constitutionally, some insight into motivations for politicians to intervene in court cases, and nuances of end-of-life issues.

Suggestions for dealing with recentism

Consider the ten-year test as a thought experiment that might be helpful:

Will someone ten years from now be confused about how this article is written? In ten years will this addition still appear relevant? If I am devoting more time to it than other topics in the article, will it appear more relevant than what is already here?

For example, in 2004 devoting more space to the U.S. presidential election, 2004, rather than the U.S. presidential election, 2000, might have seemed logical. Nevertheless, in ten or twenty years, when neither event is fresh, readers will benefit from a similar level of detail in both articles.

Furthermore, detailed stand-alone articles and lists may no longer comply with the general notability guideline, particularly the "Presumed" criterion. Content that seemed notable at the time might in retrospect violate what Wikipedia is not and other guidelines.

After "recentist" articles have calmed down and the number of edits per day has dropped to a minimum, why not initiate comprehensive rewrites? Many articles can be condensed to keep only the most important information, the wider notable effects of an event, and links to related issues. Much of the timeline and the day-to-day updates collected in the "rough draft" stages can safely be excised. A number of the citations to breaking news reports written at the time of the event (especially those later found to be inaccurate) could be replaced by those to more scholarly, historical, or retrospective references created later on. Any detailed subarticle relating to the event may also be either merged back into the main article or deleted (this includes any article about a subject only notable for that one event).

Use Wikinews. Unlike Wikipedia, the Wikinews project was founded to provide in-depth "news article"-like coverage of current events.

Just wait and see. Remember, there is no deadline and consensus can change later on. Editors writing today do not have a historical perspective on today's events, and should not pretend to have a crystal ball. This is especially true during a news spike when there is mass interest to create and update articles on a current event, regardless of whether it may be historically significant later on. Also, editors updating an article affected by a current event may not necessarily be the same ones participating in the clean up and maintenance of the page months or even years later. Above all else, editors should avoid getting into edit wars or contentious deletion discussions when trying to deal with recentism.

The recentism tag

Some editors employ the recentism tag {{Recentism}} at the top of articles to warn the reader that the content may be tilted toward recent perspectives. (Tagging is a subject of debate: Some think tags on articles make them ugly or caution readers that a tagged article is defective.)

The tag looks like this: {{Recentism}} and results in this:

Of course this tag, like many others, should be employed only if editors cannot immediately rectify the problems themselves.

You can find a list of articles that have been tagged by going to Category:Articles slanted towards recent events. Choose any article and examine it to see why an editor has tagged it; you may have to check the article history or the Discussion page to find out. If the tag is dated, look at the history of that month and the month preceding it. Improve the article by deleting the recentism or adding information that brings the piece into chronological balance (this may take a while because you have to find reputable sources). You might have to add an "Expert Needed" tag and move on. (For information, see Wikipedia:TC#Expert_needed.) Sometimes you won't agree with the assessment, and you can simply remove the Recentism tag.

See also


  1. ^ Gladstone, Brooke; Garfield, Bob (8 July 2005). "GET ME REWRITE: Transcript, Friday, July 08, 2005". On The Media. Retrieved 19 July 2016. 

External links

  • NPR audio/text - Coverage Rapid, And Often Wrong, In Tragedy's Early Hours
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