Print Project Proposal: ‘Overlooked’ by the New York Times meets Wikipedia

Intervening in the historiography. Its what historians do daily. Historians who study any subject produce scholarship using new approaches with familiar subjects and familiar approaches with new subjects and using any combination of the two. Historians have plenty of commentary on the work of their peers. But what happens when a major media outlet sets out to right wrongs and revise its historical narrative? For my print project, I propose to conduct a comparative analysis of comments left on obituaries written as part of The New York Times‘s ‘Overlooked’ series and conversations on the “Talk” pages of corresponding Wikipedia entries.

About ‘Overlooked’

The New York Times inaugurated ‘Overlooked’ in March 2018 with the aim of giving obituaries to noteworthy individuals who never received such a distinction when they passed away. It has since written obituaries for the likes of Isabelle Kelly, Gladys Bentley, Major Taylor, Ida B. Wells, and Marsha P. Johnson. Fittingly, the project began on International Women’s Day; what better way to bring attention to mistakes wrought by the NYT in the past than to rectify those errors on a day intended to celebrate women and on which to advocate for women’s rights. As such, the first obituaries written were of women whose accomplishments and contributions to the lives of millions, present and future, were once deemed unworthy of note by the NYT on the event of their passing. Yet ‘Overlooked’ is ongoing and inclusive; there are many people of all walks of life that have yet to receive the recognition that was too long denied to them because of the color of their skin, their gender or gender identity or intersectionality, their career, their activism, their “radicalism,” and their bravery.

About the Project

Rather than reflect on press reaction to and commentary on ‘Overlooked,’ my print project will compare and contrast how one ‘crowd’ engages with ‘Overlooked’ obituaries and how a second ‘crowd’ engages with corresponding Wikipedia pages. This paper will also advance reasons that explain these similarities and differences, taking into account medium, format, and the inferred purpose of that medium, as well as variables such as accessibility (i.e. the NYT paywall), intended audience, and actual audience. The main source of research will consist of comments left by members of the general public on each of the obituary pages and Wikipedia entries as of a particular date. Although ‘Overlooked’ is ongoing, it has been a part of the digital public record for nearly one year. Thus, comments will be plentiful. Wikipedia may provide even more material than the NYT comment section with which to work.

Why is this project worthwhile?

This comparative analysis has several benefits. First, defining both the comments section on biographical obituaries and the “Talk” pages of corresponding Wikipedia pages as spaces intended for the ‘crowd’ to air their thoughts is one way to begin defining commentary in such spaces as itself a genre. Second, comparative analyses add to our understanding of how the several ‘crowds’ come to circumscribe their role as consumers of historical information shared via certain mediums. Third, it provides an opportunity to measure how effective corrections to the historical record can be depending on the medium in which they are made.

2 Replies to “Print Project Proposal: ‘Overlooked’ by the New York Times meets Wikipedia”

  1. This sounds like a very interesting project. One element that struck me while reading your proposal was that the Venn Diagram of people who post comments on the two pages likely has a significant overlapping section. I wonder if, in the course of your analysis, whether you will start to be able to pick out comments on the two projects that sound as if they were written by the same person? And if that does happen, will they be writing the same things on both pages or will their contribution change based on which audience it is addressing?

  2. This is a great idea. The overlooked initiative is rightly trying to better memorialize and recognize the contributions of significant women in history and it is valuable to explore the ways that the public is responding to this public memory work. In the same vein, Wikipedia has worked to try and better develop itself to deal with imbalances that result from the fact that so many of its editors are straight white men.

    To that end, a range of projects have focused on trying to get both more women and people of color writing for wikipedia and getting more written about women and people of color in wikipedia. I think it makes a lot of sense to delve into how the politics of memory are playing out in each of these cases and looking at the text and the reactions to and discussions of these are going to be valuable ways to get at that.

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