Using Wikipedia for news research

Req: A, N

American Journalism Review has a great article on Wikipedia this month, discussing how journalists use the online encyclopedia and how they should continue using it.

Traditionally, journalists frown upon the use of Wikipedia. As a user-generated work, it is notoriously inaccurate at times. As the AJR article notes:

Wikipedia is maddeningly uneven. It can be impressive in one entry (the one on the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal includes 138 endnotes, 18 references and seven external links) and sloppy in another (it misspells the name of AJR’s editor). Its topics range from the weighty (the Darfur conflict) to the inconsequential (a list of all episodes of the TV series “Canada’s Worst Handyman”). Its talk pages can include sophisticated discussions of whether fluorescent light bulbs will cause significant mercury pollution or silly minutiae like the real birth date of Paris Hilton’s Chihuahua. Some of its commentary is remarkable but some contributors are comically dense, like the person who demanded proof that 18th-century satirist Jonathan Swift wasn’t serious when he wrote that landlords should eat the children of their impoverished Irish tenants.

[Continued reading Wikipedia in the Newsroom]

Despite these drawbacks, reporters are “cautiously trying it out,” according to the article.

For my own part, I find Wikipedia useful in some circumstances:

1) Backgrounding a Subject: If you want to know what to know what the “Trivium” is, Wikipedia has a short, informative overview of it. This would never be the end of my research. It would probably not be a citation that I would use for a newspaper article or an academic publication. But it is a great launching point if you are largely unfamiliar with the topic.

2) Providing Avenues for Research: There are times when I want to make certain I’ve covered a topic completely. I will frequently pop by Wikipedia to make sure that I’ve addressed everything I want to. For example, if I were doing an article on Scranton, I might want to peek at the Wikipedia entry as part of my research. There it indicates that the city is the period of “Stabilization and Restoration.” Is it? Working in the city, I’ve never heard that phrase used before, but it makes sense. It’s certainly worth exploring.

3) Suggesting Additional Sources: Some Wikipedia articles are quite extensive, with many interesting sources. There are certainly times when an article uses sources that I might not otherwise have come across.

4) As a Quick Link: There may be sites that cover a subject more fully, but few do it more concisely. Wikipedia is also a well-recognized resource in the online world. Therefore, I’m very comfortable linking to it in online articles when readers might not be familiar with the subject I’m discussing. For example, I might want to mention citizen journalism in an article. I realize not all of my readers understand the term, but I’d rather not devote a lot of space to explaining it. So I link it to Wikipedia, which provides enough of a description that my readers who are interested can learn more. Those who are already familiar with the subject don’t need to bother. That’s the power of online media.

The more important information or evidence is to my thesis, the less likely I am to use Wikipedia as a source for that information or evidence. The more peripheral it is, the more likely I am to lean on Wikipedia and use the time saved to work on details more central to the issue at hand.

While it’s helpful for providing an overview of a subject, suggesting some additional resources or serving as a quick online link, I rarely use Wikipedia as a citation in my work. It is usually a secondary source. It’s useful. But if I’m going to cite something, I prefer using the primary source where possible.

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This blog is maintained by Dr. Matthew M. Reavy as a service to journalism students at the University of Scranton.

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