Is Wikipedia a relevant tool for journalists?

How was the world without Wikipedia?

That is a really good question: how we ever managed without Wikipedia? Nowadays we can’t imagine a world without internet and the possibility to be informed any times.  But there was a time when people wanted to know more about a topic, they opened a big book, called encyclopedia. Today with new technologies this enyclopedia is online and free and is called Wikipedia. Within few seconds, we can read a clear definition of any topic. It’s useful to get quickly summarized information. But what is exactly Wikipedia? Is it trustworthy? Can we use it as a source? Is the information accurate? These questions are important for a journalist point of view.

History of Wikipedia

First of all, I want to give a quick overview of Wikipedias history, to understand its concept. 1994 Ward Cunningham invented a new website model in name of Wiki. Wikis are websites where anybody can create content and edit it. March 2000 Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger decided to create a free online encyclopedia to compete  against Microsoft Encarta or Encyclopedia Britannica. The two founders wanted to call their project Nupedia.com. The articles had to undergo a strict peer review process before being published for public access. Only one person had the authority to publish information. Contributors to Nupedia had to be experts in their respective fields, and PHDs were generally preferred. The growth of Nupedia was very slow: in 36 months of existence, Nupedia produced only 24 articles. They had difficulties to find volunteer contributors because of the whole peer review process. January 2001 Larry Sanger proposed to his colleague to associate the Wikis form to a more flexible encyclopedia. Wikipedia was born. They used a new software platform to make contribution easier. Because of its slow process Nupedia closed in 2003. This year when Nupedia produced only 24 articles in its whole existence, Wikipedia produced 20’000. This success was due to the participative form. Anyone can discuss, edit and change the content on Wikipedia.

Essential pre search tool

Wikipedia is the first step in each research.  As soon as we need to know something about a topic, first of all we Google it, and then we read its definition on Wikipedia. It’s very useful to get a quick but nevertheless complete overview of a subject. This website provides a summary about a topic, gives key words, illustrates the subject, gives some links and offers a usable interface. Students use Wikipedia to have an idea of what they are going to write about. The study of Head and Eisenberg investigates how students use Wikipedia for a course-related research next to other common sources, such as Google or course readings. Students explain that Wikipedia entries have value at the beginning of a research because it helps to figure out a topic and delineate it. Once they have an idea of background information, they can move on to more serious research (library books, scholarly research databases).

Of course students can use secondary resources (books, revues) but with Wikipedia they spare time. It is a perfect pre search tool to orientate our investigation. And this argument is not only available for students but also for journalists.

Impact of journalists’ job

Spare time that’s exactly the philosophy of journalists. They are constantly under pressure, because they have deadlines to write their articles. So when journalists become their subjects, they use also Wikipedia as first research. That happened to me this week. I had to write about Swiss francs and the decision of the national Bank to fix it at 1,20 for 1 Euro. This subject was quite complicated, because I have to admit, economy is not my favourite theme. So I went on Wikipedia to get information about rates, inflation, and stock exchange. It helped me first of all to make these keywords clear in my head. Then I moved on more specific economical websites to get other sources. At the end, my article was not too bad, because thanks Wikipedia, I’ve understood what I was writing about. That is a reality: journalists use Wikipedia to start their research. According to a national survey conduct in the USA (George Washington University and Cision (2009), Social Media & Online Usage Study), 61% of reporters and editors use Wikipedia in their daily practice. Another study conducts in Switzerland (2002,2005 and 2009) is relevant. 68,5  % considere the free encyclopedia as an important way of getting information.  The study also researched the attitude of Swiss journalists amount the trustworthiness of following websites. Wikipedia receives a good quote: Graphics wikipedia

Why is Wikipedia so popular?

Wikipedia is the 6th website the most visited in the world. This website celebrated its tenth anniversary in January this year. Every month 400 million visitors consult Wikipedia. This website is composed of 15 million articles in 275 different languages. Wikimedia foundation was created in 2003, to ensure that Wikipedia can keep on with its own grow. They receive financial support from institutions, but the vast majority comes from individual donators.

What is the key for Wikipedia success? The possibility for anyone to participate. More than 11 million people contributed so far to edit and change the content on this platform. Adding a single line is easy. The interface is handy for anyone. There is no authority that checks the accuracy of the information. But apparently volunteer contributors correct mistakes. One wrong information never stays published for a long time, because someone else is going to correct it. This principle is called auto-correction. But what happen when someone intentionally publish a hoax?

Danger of Wikipedia

As I said, there is no guarantee of accuracy. Journalists can use Wikipedia as a start. The main reasons for using Wikipedia are to obtain background information or a summary about a topic. This tool gives a quick overview. But according to professors’ cautions Wikipedia cannot be considered as an authoritative source. We have to use other sources. The main critics are that this website is full of mistakes and is badly written. The contributors are not necessarily experts. Some compare Wikipedia to public toilets: you never know who was there before you. Another problem is that the different articles are not up-to-date. We have to keep in mind that it is an encyclopedia. It gives information but doesn’t tell recent news.

In my opinion Wikipedia is a fantastic resource but we have to be aware of its limits.  When we write an article and we focus only on Wikipedia’s information, I think it’s a mistake. Because of its participative form, Wikipedia can contain wrong datas or hoaxes. Journalists have to be aware and have to source their information, with at least to others resources. The role of the press is to give accurate information. It’s journalists’ mission to ensure the quality of the information they broadcast. Wikipedia is a relevant pre search tool for journalists, but it is not sufficient. We have to use it carefully and conscientiously and combinate with other resources.

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