In May 2009, the Irish Times reported a story that made journalists everywhere cringe. The article, entitled “Student’s Wikipedia hoax quote used worldwide in newspaper obituaries,” began:
A Wikipedia hoax by a 22-year-old Dublin student resulted in a fake quote being published in newspaper obituaries around the world. The quote was attributed to French composer Maurice Jarre who died at the end of March. It was posted on the online encyclopedia shortly after his death and later appeared in obituaries published in The Guardian, the London Independent, on the BBC Music Magazine website and in Indian and Australian newspapers.
Hoaxes are not new in journalism, but Wikipedia haters, who are vocal if not all that numerous, were thrilled with this one. It gave them another reason to attack the online encyclopedia.
Certainly, the site’s relatively open nature was instrumental in the student’s ability to pull off the hoax in the first place. But a closer examination, including a long note to readers by The Guardian—one of the publications that fell for the hoax—suggested a different lesson. In fact, as Siobhain Butterworth, the newspaper’s “readers’ editor,” observed, the Wikipedia community performed well in a) discovering the lie and 2) fixing the article:
Wikipedia editors were more skeptical about the unsourced quote [than newspaper editors who printed obituaries based on the false information]. 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.
Still, the invented quote was widely used, and by people who should have known better. In The Guardian, there was apparently no citation, even to Wikipedia, which would have been a tip-off in the first instance.
As The Guardian’s Buttersworth also noted, “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.”
That applies to everyone, not just journalists. Wikipedia’s own policies call for all information to be traced back to authoritative references, and articles are routinely flagged when they lack such references:
Content should be verifiable with citations to reliable sources. Our editors’ personal experiences, interpretations, or opinions do not belong here.
I say this again and again, to students and anyone else who’ll listen:
Wikipedia is often the best place to start, but the worst place to stop.
It’s the best place to start because you’ll often find a solid article about a topic or person. It’s the worst place to stop because that article might be wrong in some particular. A 2005 article in Nature magazine, comparing Wikipedia to the Encyclopedia Britannica, only muddied the issue, and not because it didn’t conclusively resolve the question of which is more accurate. The point here is that you should not assume the particular fact you check at a particular moment is true.
But every decent Wikipedia article has something at the bottom that should also appear on newspaper articles online: a long list of links to original or at least credible outside sources, including news articles. And every Wikipedia article has a record of every change, down to the smallest detail, going back to the day it was first created.
Moreover, Wikipedia articles of any depth are accompanied by “meta” conversations about the articles themselves, where the editors discuss or argue among themselves about the quality of the information going into the articles and often about the credentials of the editors who have been making the latest changes.
Yes, use Wikipedia—and lots of other sources. Just make sure you understand both its advantages and its limitations. And if you see something that’s wrong, fix it! (More on that ahead.)
Who agrees with me? Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia’s co-founder, among others. I’m posting a video interview with him on the Mediactive site where he says so. Note: He’s a friend, and I’m an investor in his privately held company, Wikia.