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Wikipedia in the Newsroom

From AJR, February/March 2008 issue

Wikipedia in the Newsroom

February/March » While the line ?according to Wikipedia? pops up occasionally in newsstories, it?s relatively rare to see the user-created onlineencyclopedia cited as a source. But some journalists find it veryvaluable as a road map to troves of valuable information.

Related reading: Citing Wikipedia

By Donna Shaw
Donna Shaw (shaw@tcnj.edu) is an AJR contributing writer.

Whenthe Las Vegas Review-Journal published a story in September aboutconstruction cranes, it noted that they were invented by ancient Greeksand powered by men and donkeys.

Michigan's Flint Journal recentlytraced the origins of fantasy football to 1962, and to three peopleconnected to the Oakland Raiders.

And when the Arizona Republicprofiled a controversial local congressman in August, it concluded thathis background was "unclear."

What all three had in common wasone of the sources they cited: Wikipedia, the popular, reader-writtenand -edited online encyclopedia. Dismissed by traditional journalism asa gimmicky source of faux information almost since it debuted in 2001,Wikipedia may be gaining some cautious converts as it works its wayinto the mainstream, albeit more as a road map to information than as asource to cite. While "according to Wikipedia" attributions do crop up,they are relatively rare.

To be sure, many Wikipediacitations probably sneak into print simply because editors don't catchthem. Other times, the reference is tongue-in-cheek: The Wall StreetJournal, for example, cited Wikipedia as a source for an item on"turducken" (a bizarre concoction in which a chicken is stuffed into aduck that is stuffed into a turkey) in a subscriber e-mail update justbefore Thanksgiving. In the e-mail, the Journal reporter wrote thatsome of his information was "courtesy of Wikipedia's highly informativeturducken entry. As my hero Dave Barry says, 'I'm not making this up.Although, I'll admit that somebody on Wikipedia might have.'"

And when Time Inc. Editor-in-ChiefJohn Huey was asked how his staffers made sure their stories werecorrect, he jokingly responded, "Wikipedia."

It's unclear if many newsrooms haveformal policies banning Wikipedia attribution in their stories, butmany have informal ones. At the Philadelphia Inquirer, which citedWikipedia in an article about the death of television personality TomSnyder last July, Managing Editor Mike Leary recently sent an e-mail tostaff members reminding them they are never to use Wikipedia "to verifyfacts or to augment information in a story." A news database searchindicates that "according to Wikipedia" mentions are few and farbetween in U.S. papers, and are found most frequently in opinioncolumns, letters to the editor and feature stories. They also turn upoccasionally in graphics and information boxes.

Such caution is understandable, asfor all its enticements, Wikipedia is maddeningly uneven. It can beimpressive in one entry (the one on the Naval Battle of Guadalcanalincludes 138 endnotes, 18 references and seven external links) andsloppy in another (it misspells the name of AJR's editor). Its topicsrange from the weighty (the Darfur conflict) to the inconsequential (alist of all episodes of the TV series "Canada's Worst Handyman"). Itstalk pages can include sophisticated discussions of whether fluorescentlight bulbs will cause significant mercury pollution or silly minutiaelike the real birth date of Paris Hilton's Chihuahua. Some of itscommentary is remarkable but some contributors are comically dense,like the person who demanded proof that 18th-century satirist JonathanSwift wasn't serious when he wrote that landlords should eat thechildren of their impoverished Irish tenants.

Hubble Smith, the Review-Journalbusiness reporter who wrote the crane story, says he was simply lookingfor background on construction cranes for a feature on the Las Vegasbuilding boom when the Wikipedia entry popped up during a search. Itwas among the most interesting information he found, so he used it. Butafter his story went to the desk, a copy editor flagged it.

"He said, 'Do you realize thatWikipedia is just made up of people who contribute all of this?'" Smithrecalls. "I had never used it before." The reference was checked andallowed to remain in the story.

Indeed, the primary knock againstWikipedia is that its authors and editors are also its users ? anunpaid, partially anonymous army, some of whom insert jokes,exaggeration and even outright lies in their material. About one-fifthof the editing is done by anonymous users, but a tight-knit communityof 600 to 1,000 volunteers does the bulk of the work, according toWikipedia cofounder Jimmy Wales. Members of this group can deletematerial or, in extreme cases, even lock particularly outrageousentries while they are massaged.

The extent of the potential formisinformation became clearer in August, when a new tool calledWikiScanner (wikiscanner.virgil.gr/) began providing an ingeniousdatabase to identify propagandists and hoaxers. It gave Wikipediacritics plenty of new ammunition, as it revealed that among thosesurreptitiously rewriting entries were employees of major corporations,politicians and the CIA trying to make their bosses look better. Andthen there was the John Seigenthaler Sr. episode, in which someoneedited the prominent retired journalist's Wikipedia biography toinsinuate that he briefly had been a suspect in the assassinations ofJohn and Robert F. Kennedy. In an op-ed piece for USA Today in 2005,Seigenthaler, who once worked for Bobby Kennedy and was one of hispallbearers, railed against Wikipedia, calling it "a flawed andirresponsible research tool." (A Nashville man later admitted insertingthe material as a joke aimed at a coworker, and apologized.)

Noone is more aware of such pitfalls than the leadership of Wikipedia,whose online disclaimer reminds users that "anyone with an Internetconnection" can alter the content and cautions, "please be advised thatnothing found here has necessarily been reviewed by people with theexpertise required to provide you with complete, accurate or reliableinformation." An even more blunt assessment appears in theencyclopedia's "Ten things you may not know about Wikipedia" posting:"We do not expect you to trust us. It is in the nature of anever-changing work like Wikipedia that, while some articles are of thehighest quality of scholarship, others are admittedly completerubbish." It also reminds users not to use Wikipedia as a primarysource or for making "critical decisions."

Wales says it doesn't surprise himto hear that some journalists are cautiously trying it out. "I thinkthat people are sort of slowly learning how to use Wikipedia, andlearning its strengths and its weaknesses," he says. "Of course, anyreasonable person has to be up front that there are weaknesses... Onthe other hand, there are lots of sources that have weaknesses." Walesthinks the encyclopedia's best journalistic use is for backgroundresearch rather than as a source to be quoted.

Wales, a board member and chairmanemeritus of the nonprofit Wikimedia Foundation Inc., which ownsWikipedia, says the company constantly strives to improve its product."Right now we're tightly focused on making sure that, for example, thebiographies are well sourced," he says. The foundation is alsodeveloping new tools "to block people who are misbehaving," includingone for new German-language Wikipedia users that will vet theircontributions. If it works, Wales says, it can be rolled out forWikipedia encyclopedias in other languages.

He also defends the right ofWikipedia ? and perhaps even reporters ? to have a little fun. "Isubscribe to Google alerts and I saw that turducken [item in the WallStreet Journal e-mail] and I thought, well, what other source would youuse? Britannica doesn't cover this nonsense," he says.

There are still plenty ofjournalists who aren't convinced of Wikipedia's worth, among them thedenizens of testycopyeditors.org, where contributors to the onlineconversation have names like "crabby editor" and "wordnerdy." Asked hisopinion of Wikipedia, Phillip Blanchard, the Washington Post copyeditor who started testycopyeditors, responds, "I'm not sure what Icould add, beyond 'don't use it' and 'it's junk.'"

While the Post has no writtenpolicy against it, "I can't imagine a circumstance under which a factwould be attributed to Wikipedia," says Blanchard, who works on thefinancial desk. "'According to Wikipedia' has appeared only a couple oftimes in the Washington Post, once in a humor column and once in amovie review."

Gilbert Gaul, a PulitzerPrize-winning reporter at the Post, describes himself as a "dinosaur inthe changing world" when it comes to rules about sourcing stories.Wikipedia, he says, doesn't meet his personal test ? for one thing,"there is no way for me to verify the information withoutfact-checking, in which case it isn't really saving me any time." Heprefers to do his own research, so he can "see and touch everything,"rather than rely on the mostly anonymous content of Wikipedia.

"I like much of the newtechnology... But to me rules, borders, guidelines and transparencymatter a lot," Gaul said in an e-mail interview. "I need and want to beable to trust the people I am reading or chatting with. If I can't,what is the point?"

Other journalists, though, are atleast somewhat won over by what can be an impressive feature: thosesometimes lengthy Wikipedia citations that lead to other, moreauthoritative sources. David Cay Johnston, a Pulitzer-winning reporterfor the New York Times, says he recently looked up "thermodynamics" tosee where it led him, and found that Wikipedia's entry listed numerousreferences from reliable sources.

"I have a solid understanding ofthe concept, but once we get into fine points, I have nothing beyond myskepticism as a reporter to judge the accuracy, validity andreliability of what is there," he says. "However, this entry appears tobe useful as a source guide. It has names of researchers whose bookswere published by eminent organizations, and you can take that as aquick way to find sources. So as a tip sheet, as a road map to reliablesources, Wikipedia seems valuable."

Jim Thomsen, a copy editor at theKitsap Sun in Bremerton, Washington, has no problem with attributinginformation to the online encyclopedia in certain cases. "If I seesomething in Wikipedia I might want to cite for background and contextfor a story, I trace back the cites to their original sources," Thomsensaid in an e-mail interview. "If I feel the origins are solid, I'll usethe info.

"I know there's been a lot ofhullabaloo about people with agendas seeding Wikipedia with slanted oreven false information, but as I see it, that sort of stuff can beeasily sniffed out ? by looking at the cites, and tracking them back.No cites? Fuhgeddaboudit. The bottom line is that Wikipedia can be agreat tool as a central clearinghouse for contextual information. Butnot a single syllable there should be taken at face value."

The Los Angeles Times is one ofmany newspapers that have allowed an occasional "according toWikipedia" in their pages in the last several months. One was in acommentary piece about Barack Obama; another appeared in astaff-written story about a professional "man in the street" whomanaged to be interviewed repeatedly. The reference in the latter storydrew rapid fire on testycopyeditors.org, with comments including "Shameon the Los Angeles Times" and "No, no, a thousand times no."

Melissa McCoy, the Times' deputymanaging editor in charge of copy desks, says the paper occasionallyallows Wikipedia attribution. "We're certainly not going to useWikipedia as a stand-alone news source, but we're not going to excludeit if it takes us somewhere," she says. "If a reporter spots somethingin there and it makes them do an extra phone call, it's silly" not touse it.

There'sno unanimity about Wikipedia among academic experts, who have engagedin vigorous debates about the online encyclopedia. While manyprofessors refuse to allow students to cite it, it has attracted someprominent defenders, including historians and scientists who haveanalyzed its content.

"If a journalist were to findsomething surprising on Wikipedia and the journalistic instinctssuggested it was correct, the journalist might add that as anunsubstantiated Wiki-fact and invite comment," says Cathy Davidson, aprofessor at Duke University and cofounder of HASTAC (Humanities, Arts,Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory, www.hastac.org), anetwork of researchers developing new ways to collect and shareinformation via technology. "Perhaps an online version of the printedpiece, for example, might include a blog inviting people to comment onthe Wiki-fact. It may be that there would be Wiki-facts online thatwere not in the printed piece. In other words, why not use the newtechnologies available to expand knowledge in all kinds of ways?"

Journalists also should consider,Davidson says, whether some of the sources they deem reliable havetheir own inadequacies. For example, when she recently researched theorigins of calculus, she found that standard Western historiesgenerally credited England's Isaac Newton and Germany's GottfriedWilhelm Leibniz. But Wikipedia went much further, tracing the discoveryof basic calculus functions back to the Egyptians in 1800 BC, and thento China, India and Mesopotamia ? all hundreds of years before theEuropeans.

So while journalists should becautious no matter what resources they use, "What Wikipedia does revealto those in the Euro-American world is knowledge which most of oursources, even the most scholarly, have, in the past, neglected becauseit did not fit in our intellectual genealogies, in our history ofideas," Davidson says.

In December 2005, the sciencejournal Nature published a survey of several experts about the contentof comparable Wikipedia and online Encyclopedia Britannica entries. Ina conclusion hotly disputed by Britannica, Nature said that Wikipedia"comes close to Britannica in terms of the accuracy of its scienceentries," in that the average Wikipedia article contained four errorsto Britannica's three. Britannica's 20-page response said that "almosteverything about the journal's investigation...was wrong andmisleading...the study was so poorly carried out and its findings soerror-laden that it was completely without merit." The company furtherasserted that Nature had misrepresented its own data ? its numbers,after all, showed that Wikipedia had a third more inaccuracies thanBritannica ? and asked for "a full and public retraction of thearticle." Nature stood by its story.

"The Nature piece profoundlyundermined the authority upon which Britannica depends," says GregoryCrane, editor in chief of the Perseus Digital Library at TuftsUniversity. He is a recent convert to the pro-Wikipedia camp, callingit "the most important intellectual phenomenon of the early 21stcentury."

He recognizes its faults,especially when Wikipedians write about controversial topics. So"people have to do some critical thinking," Crane says, by evaluatingtheir sources, "whether it's Wikipedia or the New York Times."

In an article he wrote in 2005,Crane acknowledged that Wikipedia "is an extreme case whose success sofar has shocked skeptical scholars." But he noted as well that other,more mainstream reference works had similar foundations ? for example,the Oxford English Dictionary was written over a period of 70 years bythousands of people, including "an inmate at an asylum for thecriminally insane."

A 2006 analysis by another scholarand Wikipedia fan, George Mason University historian Roy Rosenzweig,found some inaccuracies, omissions, uneven writing and even plagiarismin selected entries. But his comparison of several Wikipediabiographies against comparable entries in two other encyclopedias foundthat Wikipedia "roughly matches" Microsoft's Encarta in accuracy whilestill falling short of the Oxford University Press' American NationalBiography Online. "This general conclusion is supported by studiescomparing Wikipedia to other major encyclopedias," wrote Rosenzweig,who was director of the university's Center for History and New Mediauntil his death last year.

Still, many if not most in theacademic community think that Wikipedia, if used at all, should be nomore than a secondary source, and they frequently tell their studentsas much. For Cornell University professor Ross Brann, that position wasreinforced in early 2007, after the outing of a salaried Wikipediaemployee and editor who called himself "Essjay" and claimed to be atenured professor with doctorates in theology and canon law. Turns outhe had seriously padded his résumé: The New Yorker discovered afterinterviewing Essjay that he was actually a 24-year-old communitycollege dropout. To Brann, a professor of Judeo-Islamic studies anddirector of graduate studies for the Department of Near EasternStudies, the incident confirmed that Wikipedia could not be trusted asa primary source.

"I just tell students, 'Do not useWikipedia, do not cite it, do not go there for my classes.' We'retrying to teach them how to use sources, how to evaluate differentsources, and I think that in general, although obviously a wonderfulresource, for a student who just uses a search engine and they use thefirst thing that pops up..this undermines the kind of thing we'retrying to teach them," Brann says.

Brann notes that Wikipedia'spopularity probably has a lot to do with the fact that its entries sofrequently pop up first, because that's the nature of search engines."Many of them just work by the multiplicity of uses, others by virtueof ad arrangements ? somebody is deciding for you what you're going tolook at," he says.

And what about collegejournalists, a group that has never known life without computers? Anews database search suggests that they are just as reluctant to citeWikipedia as their professional colleagues. In August, for example, theUniversity of Iowa newspaper, the Daily Iowan, used the WikiScannerdatabase to determine that thousands of Wikipedia entries had been madeor modified by people using the campus computer network. Some involvedobvious but harmless enough vandalism: "Hawkeyes Rule" was insertedinto text about the college's football stadium; less generously, aformer university president was called an "eater of monkey brains,"according to the paper's story.

Jason Brummond, editor in chief ofthe Daily Iowan, says he considers Wikipedia a good initial source,"but you go from there to find what most people would consider a morereputable source." Reporters in his newsroom generally understand that,he adds.

Brummond thinks the age of thejournalist doesn't necessarily have that much to do with acceptingWikipedia: "It's more a personal awareness of how Wikipedia works."

In September, the University ofKansas student newspaper ran an editorial calling upon Wikipedia to doa better job of restoring "adulterated pages," noting that "despite athousand recitations by our professors that Wikipedia is not a genuinesource, students trust the site to give them accurate information."Nevertheless, Erick Schmidt, editor of the University Daily Kansan,says he doesn't rely much on Wikipedia, in part because his reporterswrite mostly about college and community issues. Plus, "we're taught tobe cautious of things and skeptical," he says.

Schmidt rejects the notion thatcollege students uncritically accept Wikipedia because they areinfatuated with all things Internet. "We don't want to move things totechnology because we think it's cool or paper is lame," he says. "Buthonestly, we are pressed for time, and if technology speeds things up..that's why we're being drawn to it."

For his part, Wales maintains thatthe more people use Wikipedia, the more they'll come to understand andaccept it. His conclusion, he says, "comes from people who have usedthe site for a long time and know, 'I have to be careful'.. which iswhat good reporting is supposed to be about anyway."

But whatever the verdict onWikipedia, one thing should not change, says the New York Times'Johnston: "No matter who your sources are, when you sign your name, youare responsible for every word, every thought, every concept." Contributing writer Donna Shaw (shaw@tcnj.edu) has written aboutfront-page ads, hyperlocal Web sites and Pulitzer Prizes for AJR.

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