The first thing most writers do when news breaks is head to Wikipedia, regardless of what's taught in journalism school these days. On Wednesday, soon after a gunman suspected to be Dylann Roof killed nine people at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, the important historically black church had no Wikipedia page. Right now, it has a detailed one.
Parker Higgins, a copyright expert at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (and friend of Motherboard), created a Wiki page for the church immediately following news of the massacre and called on his Twitter followers to help him fill it out. Within hours, hundreds of edits were made by dozens of Wikipedia editors.
Wikipedians: Mother Emanuel AME Church is an incredibly historic and important place of worship. Please fix this up https://t.co/sFjKL9AB95
— Parker Higgins (@xor) June 18, 2015
"Wikipedia articles are, for better or for worse, a metric with a disproportionate impact on people's perception of what is valuable," Higgins wrote in a blog post Friday. "Putting the page together was one way I that could contribute positively to that conversation, and—importantly—that I could do so without centering my own voice. Wikipedia authorship is imminently knowable but generally unknown."
A Wikipedia article can have an impact on shaping whatever media coverage eventually makes its way out there, and the lack of one can lead writers to wrongly assume that maybe a person or place isn't all that important, regardless of whether that's truly the case.
As Higgins notes (and as the Wikipedia article now shows), the Emanuel AME Church is a monumentally important one: It's nearly 200 years old, and played a huge role in the black community both pre- and post-Civil War. It's been a site of multiple acts of violence before Wednesday's racially motivated shooting. It was burned down by white supremacists in the 1800s and members of its congregation were repeatedly arrested by white Charleston city officials simply for congregating. In 1822, Denmark Vesey, one of the church's founders, and five other church members were arrested and executed for allegedly plotting a slave revolt.
Some of society's most revered black heroes have also spoken there: Booker T. Washington, Martin Luther King Jr., Coretta Scott King, and Wyatt T. Walker have all led events there.
Unless you were already a history expert, there was no easy way to access that information. And it's not a surprise that a historic, and historically black church would be left out. Wikipedia has notoriously shown a track record of being more male than it should, and specific edit-a-thons have been held to add more female voices to the site. But Wikipedia also has a race problem.
"The stereotype of a Wikipedia editor is a 30-year-old white man, and so most of the articles written are about stuff that interests 30-year-old white men," James Hare, president of Wikimedia D.C. told the New York Times in February. "So a lot of black history is left out."
36 hours, 152 edits, 44 editors and now Emanuel AME Church has a solid Wikipedia page https://t.co/pDLaAzbJLE thanks @xor creating it
— Ed Summers (@edsu) June 19, 2015
In the past few months, a couple edit-a-thons held by Howard University and the New York Public Library's Schomburg Center for black culture research have attempted to slowly close this gap. But it's something of a systemic problem, one that a few edit-a-thons or concerted efforts by people like Higgins isn't going to solve.
"Wikipedia reflects society as a whole, and historically, women and people of color have not been represented in mainstream knowledge creation or inclusion in that knowledge," Katherine Maher, a Wikimedia Foundation representative told Wired.
Nonetheless, every little bit helps, especially when there's breaking news or increased interest in a particular page.
"Wikipedia articles are, for better or for worse, a metric with a disproportionate impact on people's perception of what is valuable," Higgins wrote. "In the last two days alone, the [Emanuel AME Church] page has been viewed 36,000 times. This stuff matters."