Wikipedia:Avoiding harm

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During the development of Wikipedia's biographies of living persons policy, one of the principles considered was, "An important rule of thumb when writing biographical material about living persons is 'do no harm.'"

This principle was ultimately rejected: while avoiding harm remains an important consideration within our living persons policy, doing no harm has been found to be incompatible with our obligation to maintain a neutral point of view when writing about all subjects, including living people.

The essay that follows contains a number of other ideas that were considered during the formation of the biographies of living persons policy. Many of them continue to resonate strongly with our current policy.

Public and nonpublic information

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Information about a notable living individual can be divided broadly into two categories: public and nonpublic information. Generally speaking, nonpublic information consists of private details about an individual that have not been published in the mainstream media and are not widely known. In most cases, Wikipedia articles should not include such information; Wikipedia is not a tabloid, and we are not in the business of "outing" people or publishing revelations about their private lives, whether such information is verifiable or not. As Wikipedia has a wider international readership than most individual newspapers, and since Wikipedia articles tend to be permanent, it is important to use sensitivity and good judgment in determining whether a piece of information should be recorded for posterity.

In some cases, there is some question as to whether a particular piece of information is public or nonpublic, e.g. where it has been published in reliable sources, but it is doubtful whether it belongs in an article. In such cases, the potential harm to the subject should be taken into account; an inclusion test can be applied in these instances.

An inclusion test

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An example of an inclusion test is the article on Jenna Bush, daughter of US President George W. Bush. Jenna Bush was on one occasion arrested for underage drinking. As Ms. Bush is notable primarily because of her relationship to a head of state, it would normally be inappropriate to include information of this nature about her (whereas it would be entirely appropriate, for instance, if the information concerned a sitting politician). However, the Jenna Bush article is an example of a case where such information is appropriate for inclusion; as such, this inclusion test can be applied to other parallel situations. The factors to take into account are:

  1. Is the information already widely known? If it has appeared in numerous mainstream reliable sources over an extended period of time, then it is probably suitable to be included in the article. If the information has only appeared in a few tabloid sources, local newspapers, or websites of dubious quality, or has only been the subject of fleeting and temporary coverage, then it is not appropriate to include it.
  2. Is the information definitive and factual? Wikipedia is not in the business of speculation, or publishing dubious allegations, unless such allegations are notable in themselves. In particular, possibly false allegations that would significantly harm an individual's life should be avoided. Unconfirmed allegations may only be included in Wikipedia where they have already been widely publicised by the mainstream news media; in these cases, the allegations should not be given undue weight. In circumstances where a person has been charged with a crime, it is acceptable for Wikipedia to give details of the ongoing investigation and/or trial, but speculation must be avoided.
  3. Is the information given due weight in relation to the subject's notability? Biographies should not be dominated by a single event in the subject's life. In Ms. Bush's case, she is notable as the daughter of a serving head of state, and has received extensive media coverage not related to the underage drinking incident; as such, this incident should not dominate the article, and other events in her life should be appropriately covered. In cases where a person is only notable for their participation in a single event or phenomenon (such as the Bus uncle), it may be inappropriate to write a biography on them at all, as this may develop into a pseudo-biography or "coatrack" article. Instead, such content may be merged into a main article on the event.

If all of these apply, then it is reasonable for the information to be included. If none of them apply, then it should be removed.

Inclusion of names and biographical details

In some cases, a person is notable primarily for a single event in their life. This may be the case with the subjects of Internet phenomena or unusual medical conditions, the children of notable individuals, or the victims of notable crimes. In many of these cases, the person in question is a child, or was a child at the time of the notable event. In such cases, some sensitivity needs to be shown in deciding whether or not to include their names, and/or any other biographical details about them which are not relevant to the case.

It is not possible to develop a definite rule for such cases. In general, if such an individual – the victim of a crime, for instance – has received substantial independent coverage in the media, and their name is well-known, then it is appropriate to include an article on them. Examples of this are Damilola Taylor and Madeleine McCann. Likewise, if the subject of an Internet phenomenon has received detailed and significant coverage in the news media, it may be appropriate to include their name; such as The Bus Uncle and John Smeaton.

In contrast, there are cases where it is unnecessary to include a full biography of a person, or even their name. For instance, a child born with an unusual medical condition, who has received some coverage in the news media, may be mentioned in the article on their medical condition; in such cases, it may be appropriate to mention their name in the article, but it is unlikely that they merit a full biography.

In cases where names are removed from an article to protect the privacy of a semi-notable individual, this should be discussed on the article's talk page. There is a presumption in favour of privacy, and as such, in most cases, the names should not be restored unless there is a definite consensus to do so. In some such cases, editors should avoid quoting the names themselves (or other contested biographical information) on talk pages during the discussion; it should be remembered that talk pages are public space, and that information discussed there is available to readers.

In exceptional cases, when names or sensitive information have been redacted, it may be necessary to discuss the removal by e-mail or other off-wiki methods, rather than on the talk page. This should, however, be avoided where possible, as it reduces transparency. Editors should exercise sensitivity and judgment in approaching such situations.

Pseudo-biographies

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An article under the title of a person's name should substantially be a full and balanced biography of that person's public life. If the person is notable only in connection with a single event, and little or no other information is available to use in the writing of a balanced biography, that person should be covered in an article regarding the event, with the person's name as a redirect to the event article placing the information in context. If the event itself is not notable enough for an article, and the person was noted only in connection with it, it's very likely that there is no reason to cover that person at all.

In general, creating a pseudo-biography (on an individual who is only notable because of their participation in a single event) will require the inclusion of other biographical material, e.g. their date of birth and family background. Such information, in many cases, will fail the inclusion test, as it is unlikely to have been widely publicised in the media. When in doubt, concentrate on the notable event, rather than invading privacy for the sake of "padding out" an unnecessary biography.

The general test that should be applied in such cases is as follows:

  • Do any reliable sources cover the individual themselves as a main or sole focus of coverage, or is the person mentioned only in connection with an event or organization? In the second case, it is likely that the event or organization is notable, but that the individual is not. In this case, the person may merit a mention in articles associated with the event or organization, but should not have a standalone "biography" article; an example of this may be the Bus uncle. On the other hand, if the person themselves received substantial coverage under their own name, such as Madeleine McCann or Damilola Taylor, then they may merit a biography.
  • Was the person the main focus of relevant coverage? For instance, it is not necessary to include biographies on every person who was present at the Virginia Tech massacre. The event is notable; individual people are not.
  • Is the person notable for any other events in their life? In most cases, as noted above, a person who is notable only for one event does not merit a full biography under their name.

Neutral point of view

The "do no harm" principle does not justify the removal of relevant negative information about a living person. Wikipedia is an encyclopedia and articles must be written from a neutral point of view. Thus, they must represent fairly and without bias all significant views and information (that have been published by reliable sources).

Ethics and consensus

In applying the principle of "do no harm", it is often tempting for an editor to take controversial actions under the principle of ignore all rules. In some cases, it is appropriate to take immediate action without prior discussion, such as where there is a flagrant breach of privacy. However, such actions should be discussed afterwards, and reversed if there is a clear consensus to do so.

For instance, in a case such as the redaction of names from an article, the first step may be to remove the names from an article. However, this should then be discussed on the talk page. During the discussion, the names should be left out; revert-warring is not helpful in these circumstances, as the temporary absence of the names is unlikely to significantly damage Wikipedia's credibility. The names should be restored if there is a clear consensus to do so; a straw poll may be helpful in gauging consensus.

Suggested procedure

The following are suggestions for the possible courses of action you can follow if you see a suspected violation of the biographies of living persons policy in an article.

For removal of sourced content

If you see material in a biography that is sourced and accurate, but may fail the inclusion test described above, then you can follow these steps. This might apply to content such as the names of crime victims, for instance, or the details of those associated with an Internet phenomenon.

  1. Be bold and remove the content. Use a non-aggressive edit summary, such as (temporary removal per WP:BLP, will discuss on talk page).
  2. Discuss it on the talk page, apply the inclusion test (as detailed above), and try to determine consensus. A straw poll may be helpful at this stage, as may a third opinion.
  3. Only restore the content if there is a clear and unequivocal consensus to do so.

If you see a removal of such content, and you disagree with the removal, do not edit-war to restore the information. Instead, participate in the discussion on the talk page. Alternatively, you can post a notice on the BLP Noticeboard.

For removal of unsourced or dubious content

Unsourced, poorly sourced, or dubious content, especially if potentially libelous, should simply be removed on sight from biographies of living persons. Editors who repeatedly reinsert unsourced or poorly sourced material about a living person are subject to a block from editing, and edits which remove such content are exempt from the three-revert rule.

For deletion of an article

If you are an administrator, and you see an article on a living individual where most or all of the content fails the "inclusion test" (see above), then you may want to follow these steps.

  1. First, try removing the offending content from the article, and see what is left.
  2. If enough is left to sustain an article, do not delete the article, and start a discussion of the problematic content on the article's talk page.
  3. If there would not be enough to sustain the article, that is, the remaining content contains no evidence of notability, then temporarily delete the entire article. If you are not sure, it is advisable to obtain a second opinion on the case before deleting, preferably from another administrator. If the article is deleted, use a non-aggressive edit summary, such as (deleting temporarily for WP:BLP, will discuss).
  4. Discuss the deletion with other administrators. Keep the article deleted while the discussion is taking place; administrators can access the deleted material, so it does no harm to leave it deleted.
    The method of discussion used should depend on the sensitivity of the material involved. In extreme cases, where you believe that there has been a gross violation of the subject's privacy, discuss the issue privately by e-mail with other administrators. If the issue is less sensitive, discuss it at the administrators' noticeboard.
  5. If there is consensus among administrators that the deletion was unjustified, restore the article.

If a deletion of this sort is being discussed at the administrators' noticeboard or on any other Wikipedia page, participants should avoid repeating material from the deleted article in the discussion. Bear in mind that discussion pages are publicly available to readers. In some cases, such discussions may be courtesy-blanked after the discussion is concluded, or names may be redacted. If deletions of this type are taken to deletion review, they should not be undone while the discussion is taking place, and participants in the discussion should avoid repeating extensive material from the article. Again, if the deletion is endorsed, the discussion may subsequently be courtesy-blanked to protect the subject's privacy.

See also

Related policies
Essays







Creative Commons License