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Why sources matter - an essay[edit]

This essay is in development. Comments welcome on its Talk page.

In the news publishing world, where writers are paid, sources can help or harm, and documenting them can help, but failing to document them will definitely harm.

Authors who previously had credibility have lost it, such as Jonah Lehrer ([1][2]) in 2012, Michelle Delio[3] at Wired in 2005, and Stephen Glass (reporter) in 1989-90. There have been others.

According to Wired Magazine, in 2005 two magazines checked sources on articles written by Michelle Delio: one retracted two stories after a source couldn't be verified, the other removed anonymously sourced quotes after publication. Then Wired investigated Delio's Wired articles by commissioning a source check (Michelle Delio Review By Adam L. Penenberg) and producing an article (Wired News Releases Source Review, Wired News, 05.09.05) based on the report.

The Penenberg report states that 160 articles were checked, and 22 were found which had unverifiable secondary sources (the Wired article lists 24). According to page 8 of the report, "it is true that Delio's primary sources do check out. It is a number of her secondary sources, [...], that have not."

As a result, Wired placed the following header on 24 of Delio's 700 (1 in 9) articles:

Reader's advisory: Wired News has been unable to confirm some sources for a number of stories written by this author. If you have any information about sources cited in this article, please send an e-mail to sourceinfo[AT]

Note Wired's wording:

  • "some sources,", not "some secondary sources," or "51 secondary sources."
  • "a number of stories," not "24 stories out of 160."
  • Didn't limit the advisory's scope, as in "Reader's advisory: Wired has been unable to confirm the following source(s) for this article:[list]," full stop.

If an author screws up in the publishing world where specifics are important, they'll be tarred with generalities. The simple fact is, writers are responsible for the verifiability of claims.

And that's why, on Wikipedia, I use

{{Citation needed}}[citation needed],  
{{what}}[clarification needed],
{{when}}[when?], and
{{failed verification}}[not in citation given]

Primary, secondary? What?[edit]

In the report's parlance, "primary" and "secondary" refer to the relative importance of a source to the article's meaning. "Primary sources" are of utmost importance, critical to the point of the article, and "secondary sources" are of less importance, or merely supporting evidence for the article, such as quotes. This usage is typical in journalism.

Contrast this with Wikipedia, where "primary" and "secondary" refer to the distance of a source from an event or fact. Think, "six degrees of Kevin Bacon." Here, "primary source" refers to the person or object itself which is the subject of the article, "secondary source" refers to published reports on the subject, and "tertiary" refers to a distillation of cited works, like an article at Wikipedia. Wikipedia is a tertiary source. This usage is typical among encyclopedists.

The Numbers[edit]

Here is Wired's list of articles, with the number of unverifiable sources vs the number of verified sources named in the story.

1. "Spyware on My Machine? So What?" (Dec. 6, 2004) Unverified: 4. Verified: 3.

2. "Patron Saint of the Nerds" (Nov. 10, 2004). Unverified: 1 (denied and redacted). Verified: 8 listed.

3. "Minniapple's Mini Radio Stations" (Oct. 8, 2004). Unverified: 1. Verified: 8.

4. "Florida to Tax Home Networks" (June 24, 2004). Unverified: 1 Verified: 9

5. "Nasty Malware Fouls PCs With Porn" (April 30, 2004). Unverified: 2(Wired), 3(Penenberg). Verified: 7(W), 8(P)

6. "A Web of Electronic Denial" (April 28, 2004). Unverified: 2. Verified: 2

7. "Technology Resets the Clock" (April 3, 2004). Unverified: 3. Verified: 1 (NIST)

8. "Outsourcing Report Blames Schools" (March 24, 2004). Unverified: 2. Verified: 3 (Report, Pres, Greenspan)

9. "Multiplayer Games: Shards Unite!" (March 22, 2004). Unverified: 2. Verified: 4 (Sun, Microsoft, Sony, Yu)

uncounted as yet[edit]

10. "What Have We Here? Junk, Mostly" (March 15, 2004). Unverified: 6. Verified:

11. "The Masters of Memory Lane" (March 2, 2004). Unverified: 2. Verified:

12. "New MyDoom Virus Packs a Wallop" (Feb. 24, 2004). Unverified: 2. Verified:

13. "AOL Peeved by Adware Outbreak" (Feb. 13, 2004). Unverified: 1. Verified:

14. "Adware Spreads Quickly on AOL IM" (Feb. 11, 2004). Unverified: 2. Verified:

15. "Cheapskate's Guide to a Safe PC" (Feb. 10, 2004). Unverified: 1. Verified:

16. "Mood Ring Measured in Megahertz" (Jan. 29, 2004). Unverified: 1. Verified:

17. "Promise of Eternal Youth Dashed" (Nov. 26, 2003). Unverified: 2. Verified:

18. "Clocked by Two Smoking Barrels" (Nov. 18, 2003). Unverified: 2. Verified:

19. "Meet the Nigerian E-Mail Grifters" (July 17, 2002). Unverified: 2. Verified:

20. "How to Thank Kenya for 9/11 Cows" (June 5, 2002). Unverified: 3. Verified:

21. "Read The F***ing Story, Then RTFM" (June 4, 2002). Unverified: 1. Verified:

22. "Klez: Hi Mom, We're No. 1" (May 24, 2002). Unverified: 1. Verified:

23. "Searching for Life Amid Rubble" (Sept. 12, 2001). Unverified: 4. Verified:

24. "CD Program Making Users Burn" (May 8, 2001). Unverified: 2. Verified: