Wikipedia: a source for journalists?

By Eric Butticaz

I’ll start with a quick explanation about the importance of sources for journalists. I’ll then explain why is Wikipedia interesting, how you could use it as a journalist and which points you should care about when using it.

Why are sources important to journalists?

A large part of the journalist’s credibility is built over his usage of reliable sources. Therefore, as journalists we have to be careful in our use of sources.

Actually, online sources have become more and more useful for journalists, because lots of information and facts are quickly published, without any limitation due to size or complexity of information. It can be easily illustrated by pictures or schemes and linked to many other web resources. But a side effect of the use of online sources is that they are easy alterable. It is very easy to intervene on an article and to change it without anybody noticing it.

Stating you have an article to write on a topic you don’t have a clue about, how do you start to collect information about it? Is it still useful to take a trip to the next library or to investigate in your newspapers’ archives, or the modern tools like Internet and online resources can be a good starting point?

Number of articles and contributors on en.wikipedia.org (source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:About)

The sum of information collected on the participative online encyclopedia Wikipedia seems to be an interesting tool. It is issued in many different languages (list of all Wikipedias in different languages) and contains articles on almost every subject you could think about.

Does it mean that I can spare time and collect information directly from Wikipedia without needing to check them?

I don’t think so, because as soon as I think about Wikipedia, my former teaching is coming back to the surface…

What I was told not to do…

During my former academic formation, I have been strictly warned against using Wikipedia in academic work. Nowadays, in the universities, usage of Wikipedia as a source for students is mostly not recommended, and even sometimes forbidden.[1]

What is often mentioned against the use of Wikipedia in an academic context is anonymity of contributors, (hidden) agenda behind the writing of specific articles, a no more growing number of contributors, or the fact that well informed contributors could be silenced. (The Top 10 Reasons Students Cannot Cite or Rely on Wikipedia lists the top 10 reasons and provides external links to explain in more details the precautions to take before using Wikipedia in academic context.)

Despite the warning against Wikipedia in academic context, let’s look closer into a journalistic point of view.

… and what I could do as a journalist…

I think it is possible to use Wikipedia as a interesting resource as a journalist, but then, it is necessary to be cautious ! I’ll discuss here four important points, 1) the information I need, 2) the agenda behind the article, 3) the discussion about the article and finally 4) if Wikipedia is up-to-date.

1) What information do I need?

First of all, I need to know what I am looking for. Am I just looking for general information about a context, a country or am I searching precise data about population or national budget?
Wikipedia may help you to get a clue about a new subject you have to talk or write about. It could also be helpful to find external references about it because the contributors are requested to cite the sources they use as they write an article on Wikipedia. If you are looking for up-to-date data, it is more interesting to get them on primary sources as governments or national offices (like the Swiss Statistics Office).

2) Is there an agenda behind the article?

A Wikipedia article is supposed to be written on a neutral point of view,  containing no original research (i.e. research that is not published or supported by other reliable sources) and being verifiable (i.e. every reader should be able to check the informations in the article). These three points are the basis of the article writing policy on Wikipedia, but it doesn’t avoid vandalism in the articles or approximations. Editors can try to bias their point of view to support their own opinion.

It’s also possible to intervene on an article in order to improve the image of its subject, whether a person or a brand.

  • Some recent examples could be evoked. The article about Jean-Pierre Pernaut, the well-known news presenter of the “Journal de 13h” on the French TF1, has been modified many times, sometimes on a rather rough manner, in order to enhance his image.
  • The France 2 television program “Envoyé Spécial” revealed on the 8th of November 2012  that an article has been modified by an e-reputation society, working according to the rules of Wikipedia, making the changes not easily noticeable. After a few hours, the Wikipedia community discovered that it was the article about Moncef Belkhayat, a Moroccan politician.

(The part about the modification of Wikipedia starts at 20:00)

Be careful when you use Wikipedia, whether as a journalist or as a simple curious person. You cannot assume directly that the article you read is written without a specific agenda!

3) Has the article been discussed?

Wikipedia, based on collaborative editing, has a dedicated interface for the revision of articles, where discussion can take place about the modifications. On this page, it is also possible to see who the contributors are (at least by pseudonyms), and to see if they made many additions or corrections on the Wikipedia article.

An article which has almost not been discussed  is not more credible. In facts, fewer contributors tend to offer fewer points of view and a bigger possibility of bias in the article.

Revision history of the University of Neuchâtel page on en.wikipedia.org (print screen: 21st of November 2012)

4) Is Wikipedia always up-to-date?

The informations in the article may not be up-to-date! Using the Revision history allows you to see when the last modifications occurred. The older they are, the more the informations may no be up-to-date! Therefore, be careful before using any data. Always cross-check the informations you may use further with external sources.

Summary

Using Wikipedia is not a mortal sin, as long as you care when using it! Always think that Wikipedia should have a neutral point of view, but that it is not always the fact!

As a last word, let’s introduce Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, speaking about Wikipedia for journalists :

“Wikipedia is not to use as a citation, but is a perfect tool to enter a new subject.”

  • And you, would you dare to cite Wikipedia in an article?
  • Do you think you are able to understand how the discussion page is working?

Further reading on Wikipedia and journalism :

  • What Wikipedia is not.
  • A sociology student also pointed out in 2009 that some modifications of Wikipedia can stay long enough to be used by journalists in a hurry to write an article about some celebrity’s death, in this case the death of Maurice Jarre, a composer of film musics, and using quotes from Wikipedia without checking the source. Read more about it.
  • Usage of Wikipedia banned at the AFP in London. Read more about it.

[1] The University of Lausanne, on its Library webpage for example recommends not using Wikipedia as a source, due to its functioning based on anonymous contributions and with no form of scientific validation.  (http://www.unil.ch/bcu/page48632.html, consulted on November 18th 2012).

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  1. #1 by Eric Butticaz on November 24, 2012 - 16:44

    Reblogged this on Une trace….

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