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Wikipedia prankster dupes German media

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Karl-Theodor Maria Nikolaus Johann Jakob Philipp Franz Joseph Sylvester. Pic:DPA
16:02 CET+01:00
An article poking fun at the lengthy name of new Economy Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg turned out to be a joke on some of the biggest names in the German media after it was revealed they had been tricked by a Wikipedia prankster.

On Sunday February 8, the evening before Guttenberg was officially named to replace the outgoing Michael Glos, someone decided to add the name “Wilhelm” to his already prolix name on his Wikipedia entry: Karl-Theodor Maria Nikolaus Johann Jakob Philipp Franz Joseph Sylvester Freiherr von und zu Guttenberg. “Freiherr,” for the record, is the title of Baron.

“I asked myself if anyone would notice if I simply added one more entry to the long list of names,” the anonymous Wikipedia poster wrote in a guest commentary for the media critique site bildblog.de on Tuesday. “It turns out that no one noticed, and scores of online media, newspapers and television stations used my invention without verifying it.”

Mass-circulation daily Bild ran the incorrect name and photo above the front-page headline, “Do we have to remember this name?” on Monday, poking fun at his aristocratic roots. Meanwhile the mistake ran in major publications across the country, including Germany's leading news site Spiegel Online, which reported that journalists took pleasure in asking Guttenberg to recite his name.

Bloggers and media critics have triumphed at the coup, calling a “declaration of bankruptcy” for journalistic ethics.

Along with other papers across the country, both Bild and Spiegel Online published corrections, but their tone seemed less apologetic than irritated at having had their reliance on Wikipedia revealed. On Thursday Bild wrote that the 37-year-old had been the “victim of a falsification” that many media sources, “including Bild, fell into.” But the correction included a final dig at the new minister by adding that instead of 11 names, he had “‘just' ten” names.

Meanwhile Spiegel Online corrected its mistake as soon as it was discovered, attributing it to “a manipulation of the internet encyclopaedia Wikipedia and insufficient research by Spiegel Online.” But in another article about the incident published on Thursday, it chalked up the embarrassing gaffe to “time pressure that was great.”

The news magazine also admitted that the author of the initial article had, for various reasons, only verified zu Guttenberg's name using Wikipedia - despite receiving an accurate and substantiated news flash on his name from news agency DPA.

Spiegel Online will research more carefully in the future. Wikipedia remains an important source, but can never be the only source for journalistic work,” the magazine concluded.

Director of the Deutsches Digital Institut (German Digital Institute) and media critic Jo Groebel told The Local on Thursday that while journalists should learn from the incident, their failure to check the facts is not the real scandal.

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“Journalists should be expected to double check everything,” Groebel said. “But what everyone is missing it that the topic of these articles was so trivial. It doesn't matter if he has 10 names. This is the new economy minister and we have so many challenges ahead. Journalists should be asking what he plans to acheive.”

Groebel said a recent study conducted by his institute revealed that young people believe online social communities like blogs and Facebook to be more credible than traditional journalism as the world moves toward more informal types of media. This may be part of why the focus seems to be directed towards the mistake and not the message contained in the articles, he added.

“But it takes professional journalists and their ethics to check these communities too, because they aren't accountable and don't need to be professional,” said Groebel. “The joke was only half-humorous.”

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