Wikipedia: Good for Leads

(NOTE: This is cross-posted from Poynter’s E-Media Tidbits weblog.)

I recently had an interesting discussion where a fellow journalist criticized my decision to cite a Wikipedia page as a resource in a publication specifically intended to provide leads to journalists. In a nutshell, he contended that since anyone can edit Wikipedia, it has no credibility.

Here’s why I disagree, and why I think Wikipedia is in some respects an ideal resource for reporters…

My colleague’s perspective isn’t unique. Many people doubt Wikipedia’s credibility, but over time I’ve found it’s proven to be a remarkably reliable and responsive repository of information. It’s especially useful for following on fast-moving or niche topics.

Of course, the information in Wikipedia – or from any source – should not stand alone. I personally consider Wikipedia to be a good source of leads, overviews, and basic definitions. And for those purposes I actually respect it more because it is a collaborative project.

When searching for leads, it always helps to access a diverse base of perspectives. Therefore, in the context of a publication intended to provide journalists with ahead-of-the-curve leads, Wikipedia is especially appropriate.

Journalists find good leads wherever they’re available, and then double- and triple-check that information elsewhere. In that respect, I don’t think Wikipedia offers any less credibility than, say, a government official, advocacy group, or professional organization – sources that most journalists routinely consult in the course of reporting.

Would I cite Wikipedia as the definitive resource on any topic? Well, that would depend on the topic, but probably not. However, it’s an especially robust starting point for nearly any topical research project, and it’s a great way to stay abreast of changes.

Don’t dismiss it too easily.

3 thoughts on Wikipedia: Good for Leads

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  1. I have mixed views about the “authority” of Wikipedia entries. I personally use it a modest amount, as a
    quick resource, but citing Wiki entries is tricky. Between the time that I read it and a reader of mine
    accesses it, the content may have changed and I may no longer agree with my own citation.

    I can’t bring myself to write “See the Wiki entry for a good definition of X”, but must fall back on
    “See the Wiki for *a* definition of X.”

    Citing an excerpt from a Wiki has the problem that the excerpt may no longer be there or may have been
    edited dramatically since my visit to the Wiki.

    That said, I have no problem citing the Wkiipedia overall as *a* source for research on the web.

    My preferred source for looking up a topic is simply a standard search engine, specifically since it will
    highlight sources peripherally related to the topic that might not have even occurred to the author(s)
    of the Wiki.

    Getting good definitions are difficult. If they’re not already in a standard online dictionary, there
    is a good chance that the Wikipedia may only be *a* source and not really a definitive source.

    Finally, the simple fact that they allow *me* to edit (or even create) entries raises my own
    questions about its authority as a citable source.

    — Jack Krupansky

  2. Jack, I don’t think we disagree here. I too would hesitate to use Wikipedia along as the definitive source on most topics. My point here is that, given its collaborative and evolving nature, Wikipedia can become a uniquely useful source of leads and sources.

    Of course anything you get from any source — including Wikipedia — should be verified. But that’s journalism 101.


    – Amy Gahran

  3. The English Wikipedia is generally pretty good IMO, but the Dutch version su&#$. I guess it takes a critical mass for the ‘right’ people to win the edit wars.

    Wikipedia really needs some sort of rating or quality verification system, with frozen versions or releases of articles, or of the encyclopedia as a whole.

    It could learn from the open source software communities. No one in their right mind would allow anyone to edit anything in the source code at any time in any way they see fit.