At the beginning of a piece of journalism
It is impossible to know how many of today’s pieces of journalism begin with a visit to Wikipedia, but I would estimate that it is a majority.
Statistically the site is impressive and comprehensive. As of today, it contains 2,908,083 articles which have been edited an average of 18.33 times by a community of some 9,843,756 registered users.
These facts combine to leave Wikipedia’s position at the top of Google’s organic search rankings about as assured as Big Ben’s position at the top of Saint Stephen’s tower.
Wikipedia’s popularity and usefulness for journalists means that it deserves a little closer scrutiny. Just how can journalists get more out of the site? What are the dangers that is poses to the growth of knowledge?
Here are a few tips and a few observations.
Related sites and journalistic techniques
When you are approaching an article of anything longer than 600 words you are going to need to think about structure. For long articles of several thousand words this is essential.
For brainstorming, Wikimindmap is useful. It returns results in the form of a mind map, allowing you to assess and decide which points are useful and in which order they should be structured.
Here is an example of what you might see for a search for Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch:
WikipediaVision allows you to watch real-time updates to Wikipedia. A selection of amendments and additions to the site are plotted on a global map, allowing you to track topical news by region.
Often the updates that are plotted on WikipediaVision are related to breaking news, and studying the map carefully for two minutes is likely to yield at least one good idea for a story.
Two particular sites are useful for allowing you to track topical news stories and popular articles. Firstly you have WikiRage. This site allows you to browse the top edited posts over periods of hours, days, weeks and months, as well as showing a list of Wikipedia’s most active editors.
WikiRank gives you much of the same information, albeit in graphic form. A useful feature of this site is that it allows you to view a graph of the popularity of a page over a period of time. Allowing you to chart the rise or fall in popularity of a person or a topic using a quantitative measure.
Here is an example for Dwight D. Eisenhower:
Interesting Facts and quirky information:
Readers thrive on odd stories and interesting facts. For years before the arrival of the computer, journalists and writers kept lists of quotations, superstitions, ideas, misconceptions and such like for future reference or use. A good example would be Thomas Hardy’s ‘Facts’ notebook.
People obviously do still keep their own lists, but it is hardly surprising that one of the most popular Wikipedia articles of all is a list of popular of common misconceptions. It is one of the most useful entries in the site’s directory and a bran tub of ideas for a writer looking for inspiration.
Another entry which is just as useful is the Wikipedia list of ‘Unusual articles’.
And the bad…
The dangers of an over-reliance on Wikipedia are well documented. As it is open to a constant stream of edits from a global network of editors it is susceptible to abuse. It is vital that facts are checked elsewhere.
There are, however, numerous examples of where they are not. In one recent case, Siobhain Butterworth, the readers’ editor of The Guardian, was forced into an online apology after the paper’s obituary for the French composer Maurice Jarre was found to carry falsified quotes.
Jarre’s Wikipedia page had been vandalised shortly after his death by a 22 year-old student Shane Fitzgerald of University College Dublin. Fitzgerald had wanted to prove how easy it was to spread a lie with the assistance of the Internet.
The Guardian was not the only paper fooled by Fitzgerald’s hoax, but Butterworth’s response was the most interesting. She wrote:
“Fitzgerald’s fakery was not particularly sophisticated. All he did was add a quote to Jarre’s Wikipedia page and he provided nothing to back it up. The absence of a footnote containing a reference for the quote ought to have made obituary writers suspicious.
Wikipedia editors were more sceptical about the unsourced quote. They deleted it twice on 30 March and when Fitzgerald added it the second time it lasted only six minutes on the page. His third attempt was more successful – the quote stayed on the site for around 25 hours before it was spotted and removed again.
The moral of this story is not that journalists should avoid Wikipedia, but that they shouldn’t use information they find there if it can’t be traced back to a reliable primary source.” – (Link to full article)
A tool named WikiScanner is very useful for revealing potential cases of malicious use. It tracks changes to pages by certain I.P addresses and pinpoints potential instances of abuse – or conflicts of interest.
Without wishing to unduly single out The Guardian here is a list of Wikipedia articles relating to that newspaper which have been modified in a potentially unethical manner.
An interview between Laura Oliver and Virgil Griffith of WikiScanner reveals more about the service.
Wiki Facts – Being careful with the truth
Journalists should be wary of any information contained on Wikipedia. A truthful fact can distort an image just as easily as a falsified one – something which should be understood. The danger is that journalists, and the world that follows them, will, as time passes, become more reliant on Wiki Facts.
A Wiki Fact is a fact or snippet of information that is featured on Wikipedia. They are not the sum of all human knowledge, but rather the sum of all our knowledge as reported on Wikipedia. These Wiki Facts are as much as a constraint to a piece of journalism as a speed restrictor is to the speed of a car’s engine.
The rate of Wikipedia’s growth has slowed in the last few years. The days when important entries were hurriedly and inadequately completed is now behind us.
Now, most of the articles have now reached such a level of quality that they allows us to be complacent, to rely on Wikipedia as a ‘good enough source’.
Good and interesting these articles may be, if journalists rely upon them for research they will finish up reporting certain Wiki Facts disproportionately. With these facts promoted over others, readers will essentially be left with the re-reporting of identical facts leading to the distortion of a subject, the diluting of knowledge and – most dangerously of all – the narrowing of minds.
This is the irony of Wikipedia. A website that began a number of years ago, armed with the open eyes of the world and equipped with high ideals and values. It began as a digital reflection of the sum of all human knowledge and its success has been so complete that we are now threatened with the prospect of all general knowledge being the reflection of the knowledge of Wikipedia.
One of the great challenges for good journalists and good journalism is to ensure that this does not happen.