Wikipedia:WikiProject Military history/News/January 2011/Editorials

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Writing neutrally for Wikipedia – EyeSerene

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As the second pillar of Wikipedia, neutrality is one of only three core site content policies and fundamental to the way we operate. However, despite its importance, writing from a "neutral point of view" (NPOV) is also frequently misunderstood. In this editorial I'd like to examine what NPOV is... and what it's not.

Presenting facts and opinions

First let's dispel any notion that presenting forthright and unambiguous—even contentious—statements of fact without counterbalancing argument automatically makes an article non-neutral. Some factual statements—the Earth is not flat; the sun emits light; the Holocaust happened—are deemed to be so self-evident that they may not even require a source, and the blatantly obvious can almost always be stated without including contrary viewpoints (which believe it or not do exist in all three of those cases). Neutral treatment does not mean equal treatment; NPOV, while requiring us to represent all significant viewpoints, does not require us to represent every viewpoint and certainly not to treat all viewpoints equally. A common accusation is that our coverage of some topics is biased. It comes as a surprise to the complainants to learn that Wikipedia is indeed 'biased' by both policy and design: we always give precedence to the mainstream view. Where information is generally agreed upon by reliable sources, our articles must reflect that. Significant minority views can be represented in due proportion to their acceptance; verification against reputable sources is our guide in determining what, if any, weight to assign to such views. However, insignificant views can be largely ignored outside articles that exist solely to document those views.

While we're at it, let's also dispel any notion that statements of opinion are automatically problematic. The weight to assign to factual statements is fairly straightforward to establish by examining multiple reliable sources, but sooner or later we're bound to encounter opinionated commentary, some of which will be strongly worded. Does that mean we can't include it because, as opinion, it clearly isn't neutral? Of course it doesn't, providing certain precautions are taken. Opinions—expert analysis, commentary and the like—are a vital part of article writing and often the most interesting and informative part of an article. When planning to add published opinion to an article I run though a short mental checklist:

  1. Is this source competent to offer an opinion (are they, for example, an acknowledged expert in the field)?
  2. Can their opinion be presented with appropriate weight in a neutral way?
  3. Are there any counterbalancing opinions?

If the answer to the first question is "Yes", then the answer to the second is almost invariably "Yes" as well. The main trap to avoid is giving a reader the impression that the opinion being reported is Wikipedia's or the article author's. This can usually be accomplished by in-text attribution: "According to A N Expert, the moon is made of Cheddar and not Stilton as was traditionally thought." As with facts, opinions should be assigned appropriate weight. Insignificant opinions (such as those from non-experts or unreliable sources) can generally be ignored, whereas significant minority opinions may not merit a mention in an article lede because this might give them undue prominence, but may be worth a proportionate treatment in the body of the article.

This leads us on to the third question, that of counterbalancing opinions. Seemingly every statement of opinion generates an opposing opinion (especially at ANI). Therefore to achieve neutrality we should include both... right? Well, not necessarily. Balance and neutrality aren't the same thing and it's misleading to think of neutrality like a see-saw; we're not trying to maintain a level by adding equal weights to both sides. Adhering to Wikipedia's policy framework means that some opinions simply can't be counterbalanced by opposing ones, because the opposing ones aren't reputable. The application of this to, say, flat-Earth theory is obvious, but to take a more contentious example a recurring complaint on the Holocaust Denial article talk page is the article's characterisation of Holocaust Denial as anti-Semitic. "Isn't it conceivable", say the complaints, "that a person could legitimately believe that the Holocaust did not happen for reasons other than anti-Semitic ones? To suggest otherwise is not NPOV." As a purely speculative exercise that argument may seem reasonable, but because no reliable source has yet been produced to support it (as opposed to the large body of work that puts forward the anti-Semitic characterisation) the article accurately reflects the body of reputable published opinion and, despite its apparent lack of balance, is compliant with our neutrality policy.

Disputes between reliable sources

So what about when we encounter opposing opinions that are reliably sourced? Perhaps the hardest thing to do in writing neutrally is to document disputes between equally reputable sources in a non-partisan way. Where we have a personal preference for one side or another this is doubly difficult, but thankfully as editors we are not expected to select which information to include and which to omit. Our role is merely to tell the story of the dispute and, by providing as much information as can be reliably sourced and presenting that information in proportion to its mainstream acceptance, to enable our readers to come to their own conclusion. For example, one recurring debate between some military historians involves the Second World War Normandy Campaign and is split largely on British and American lines. Encompassing everything from the planning and timing of the D-Day landings to who gave orders to whom in which battle, this has rumbled on for nearly 70 years and shows no signs of stopping. Most campaign historians have taken a view and many books have been published with the sole aim of advocating one interpretation over another. How should we write about such a quagmire? The best solution is to find a meta-source that documents the dispute itself and base our coverage on that, but unfortunately such sources don't always exist (happily one does in this case, see Operation_Epsom#Analysis paragraph 2). An alternative approach might be to reproduce representative opinions from all sides, though in doing so we need to be careful not to engage in original research by putting our own spin on things. Some editorial commentary might be necessary to link together quotations and provide coherency, but this should be kept to a minimum and should never go beyond what the sources themselves can support.

In summary

Although I haven't covered all the implications and nuances of WP:NPOV, I hope I've been able to shed some light on my interpretation and application of neutral writing. What works for me may not, of course, work for everyone (and some may disagree with what I've written, in which case please feel free to take me to task on my talkpage!), but I find the following rules-of-thumb useful:

  • WP:NPOV is not about neutral content but the neutral presentation of that content
  • If when reading an article I can't tell where the writer's sympathies lie, that article is probably neutral (note that this is different from being able to detect the sources' sympathies!)
  • Neutral writing is best achieved by drawing on as wide a selection of reliable sources as possible
  • The majority viewpoint sets the article tone; significant minority viewpoints should be mentioned in proportion to their preponderance (eg a paragraph; a sentence; a footnote); insignificant viewpoints should be ignored