Journalists pride ourselves in being accurate and on being current with the latest news. So let’s update our inaccurate views of Wikipedia.
A 10,000 Words post by Mark S. Luckie today offers lots of good advice for reporters on pleasing their editors, including this piece:
Fact-check your stories. Any editor worth their salt will inevitably ask where certain information came from. Be ready for this with explicit answers and a list of your sources. And for the love of all things holy, don’t say Wikipedia.
I heartily endorse the advice to fact-check stories, and I agree that Wikipedia alone is not a sufficient source. But it’s way past time for journalists (and academics, for that matter) to get beyond our arrogant dismissal of Wikipedia and include it in our box of imperfect tools for verifying facts. In fact, if Wikipedia has an entry on a topic you’re writing about, it would be an excellent first place for a journalist to start checking facts.
A friend of mine, John Seigenthaler, was the victim of the most infamous case of Wikipedia defamation. A user made false and cruel editing changes to John’s biography in 2005, and John didn’t learn of the attack for four months. Because other reference sites automatically pull in Wikipedia content, John had to go to great lengths to correct all the malicious misinformation about him that spread across the web. I have heard John speak about this and have a sense how deeply it must have hurt. I would never suggest that someone use Wikipedia information without verification.
But Wikipedia has improved its documentation and its transparency. I have heard again and again of examples of how quickly Wikipedia self-corrects now. I can’t recall who told me this (and, by the way, that’s not good enough sourcing for Wikipedia), but I read or heard someone recently tell about editing some harmless but false information into a Wikipedia entry. And within minutes, he received a warning that he would be barred if it happened again.
It’s time that professionals recognize the value of this source that is used widely by the public.
As an example, let’s take the Wikipedia entry on Reliability of Wikipedia. I had heard of studies that showed Wikipedia to be as accurate as the Encyclopedia Britannica, though I had not actually seen the studies. I started looking on Google and came up with links to a couple fairly limited studies:
- A study by Nature found Wikipedia to be comparable to Britannica in the accuracy of its science entries.
- Scholar Lucy Holman Rector analyzed nine historical articles in Wikipedia and found serious flaws. The 80-percent accuracy rate, even in such a narrowly limited study, does not inspire confidence. On the other hand, a study of nine articles hardly inspires confidence.
Then I turned to Wikipedia’s entry on its own reliability. I love the disclaimers at the top:
This article’s tone or style may not be appropriate for Wikipedia. Specific concerns may be found on the talk page. See Wikipedia’s guide to writing better articles for suggestions. (November 2008)
How many news outlets, academic publications or government reports are that transparent about the possible flaws in their content? Frequently we do hold stories because they don’t meet our standards. But when it’s a breaking story that needs to be in tomorrow’s paper or tonight’s broadcast or needs to get on the web site right now, we go with the pretty good story or even the mediocre story without acknowledging our flaws or asking our users to help us do better.
The article on Wikipedia reliability is lengthy and detailed, citing various studies (flattering and un) of Wikipedia accuracy, the Seigenthaler incident and other incidents of vandalism, accusations of conflicts and criticism from academics and librarians. It has exactly 100 footnotes, citing sources and linking to them. If you were writing a story on Wikipedia’s reliability, this would be exactly the place to start. While you might not want to take anything in the article as unverified fact, it points you to sources that might provide verification.
And the article isn’t all. Tabs let you read a discussion about the article and where it meets (or doesn’t) Wikipedia standards as well as history of the article, so you can see the edits that users have made. Again, helpful transparency that you seldom see from other information sources.
Read through the Wikipedia rules for biographies of living persons and then send me a link if you can show me where a news organization explains its standards as well. Except that it’s open-source, so people can violate the standards, those are incredibly high standards.
I’ve spent a lot of time trying to make my own stories and blogs accurate as well as challenging reporters to ensure the accuracy of their work. I’ve led workshops on accuracy and verification. I wish journalists were as skeptical of other sources as we are of Wikipedia. You see, every source of information has its weaknesses:
- Wikipedia is an open-source document than anyone can edit (or vandalize).
- Official documents are compiled by public employees who are often overworked and underpaid and sometimes record-keeping isn’t necessarily their best or most important skill. (Have you ever found a name or other word misspelled in a police report?)
- Official documents, academic reports or news stories that are painstakingly verified become out of date (Wikipedia can be updated more easily, though that doesn’t mean that it is).
- Officials sometimes lie or make horrible mistakes and give journalists “facts” they have not yet verified.
- Sometimes people lie or tell you stories they remember vividly but inaccurately.
As a college fact-checking project in the Netherlands demonstrates, newspaper stories aren’t as reliable as journalists think they are.
Let’s be honest: Most of the criticism of Wikipedia from journalists and academics reflects fear of new technology and new forms of communication, and arrogance about the general public, more than it reflects those people’s personal knowledge of how accurate Wikipedia actually is.
I’m not suggesting that journalists (or anyone) rely on Wikipedia as an information source without verification. But you need to bring the same skepticism to other sources of information. The essential question to help journalists verify information is to ask sources, “How do you know that?” Wikipedia answers that question better than lots of sources we use.
Here’s a slideshow that Steve Walling mentions in the comments: