Wikipedia:Wikipedia Signpost/2008-02-04/Newsroom use

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The Wikipedia Signpost

Tensions in journalistic use of Wikipedia explored

By Michael Snow, 4 February, 2008

Besides university policies regarding student papers, one of the places where citing Wikipedia as a source is most often debated seems to be in the newsroom. That question has been explored in the latest issue of the American Journalism Review, giving some additional perspective on the situations in which it would or would not be considered appropriate.

The piece, prosaically titled "Wikipedia in the Newsroom", highlights some instances where Wikipedia was acknowledged as the source of information repeated by a newspaper. Author Donna Shaw notes that this happens despite the fact that some news organizations have formal or informal policies against citing Wikipedia (in the wake of the Seigenthaler incident, a New York Times editor told staff there not to use Wikipedia when checking information). In exploring the issue, Shaw brings in opinions from academics, reporters, and newsroom staff ranging from copy editors to editors-in-chief, for a broader selection of views.

Whether doing background research, fact checking, or actually quoting from Wikipedia, many journalists have undoubtedly made at least some use of it. At this writing, the exact phrase "according to Wikipedia" produces 216 hits from Google News over the past month (naturally including the AJR article itself). Of course, the quality of news sources Google draws on can be as variable as the quality of a random selection of Wikipedia articles.

A thoroughly referenced Wikipedia article naturally provides a starting point for reporters who have to immerse themselves in a topic, and stories occasionally recommend it as a resource without relying on it. Taking information from Wikipedia and verifying it elsewhere was the use considered the most widely acceptable. For some situations, editors might feel citing Wikipedia was legitimate — to illustrate a point about how something is perceived (so that the accuracy of the information isn't critical), or for whimsical subject matter that simply has no more authoritative source (the turducken was mentioned as an example). Also, Wikipedia can still be helpful even after turning to other sources for verification. The Orlando Sentinel used it in reviewing a film about mixed martial arts, a concept the editor felt needed to be defined; after consulting various descriptions, she chose Wikipedia's as "the most concise".

Most of the publications whose staff were quoted in the story indicated they had no formal policy about Wikipedia, though they had wrestled with the issue. Blanket prohibitions on Wikipedia use, seeking to avoid the embarrassment of publishing misinformation, may contribute to other journalistic pitfalls instead. One possible scenario involves the instances that occasionally come up of Wikipedia articles being copied by reporters, slipping past an unsuspecting editor, and making it to publication without attribution, resulting in plagiarism allegations. For example, Agence France-Presse, which states that it has a written rule against using Wikipedia, nevertheless faced a situation in which a story on the 2006 Amish school shooting, written in German and syndicated in major German media, was promptly discovered to draw heavily from the German Wikipedia article on the Amish.

Another reason journalists rely on Wikipedia can be due to the pressure of deadlines, especially for last-minute fact checking. One recent example illustrating this comes from the New York Times, despite the advice from one of their editors mentioned earlier. When a recent article about a Spanish stew was questioned for repeating what one linguist called a "fake etymology", the editor responded that they had double-checked it with a Wikipedia article. That article, olla podrida, has since been modified to describe this as a "folk etymology", although some confusion could still result from Wikipedia's coverage, since the name of the dish given by the Times was "cocido", which at this writing directs the reader to a different article on the subject.

Incidentally, a passing tidbit from another piece in this AJR issue may also be of interest, particularly for those who follow the Encyclopædia Britannica's responses to Wikipedia. In it Thomas Kunkel relates an anecdote from Vartan Gregorian, former president of Brown University and now head of the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Gregorian, in the course of doing consulting work for Britannica, indicated that its editors were considering adopting Wikipedia-like techniques, but he advised against it.

Also this week:

2007 in review — Newsroom use — WikiWorld — News and notes — In the news — Tutorial — Dispatches — Features and admins — Technology report — Arbitration report

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