Citing Wikipedia  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   February/March 2008

Citing Wikipedia   

By Donna Shaw
Donna Shaw (shaw@tcnj.edu) is an AJR contributing writer.     


The words "according to Wikipedia" occasionally appear in newspapers. Some editors' thoughts on newsroom Wikipedia use:

The editor: John Leach, managing editor for news and digital media, the Arizona Republic and azcentral.com

The story: In August 2007 the Republic published a story about an Arizona congressman, Republican Rep. Rick Renzi, whose background was described as "somewhat of a mystery." The piece quoted Wikipedia as well as other sources.

The editor's comment: "The Wikipedia.com reference in the story about Rep. Rick Renzi was discussed by editors here before we used it in the paper and online, and our point in using it in the story was that the limited Wikipedia listing about Renzi shows how little was known about his background. That, however, led to a discussion about the use of Wikipedia in our stories, and we adopted a policy that says Wikipedia is not to be used as a prime reference source but could be used as a starting point in our reporting and fact-checking."

The editor: Manning Pynn, public editor, the Orlando Sentinel

The story: In August 2007 Wikipedia was cited as a source for an info box defining "mixed martial arts."

The editor's comment: "The Sentinel does not prohibit its use, but Managing Editor Mark Russell explained that, in the main, the newspaper does not cite Wikipedia as a definition source, because it does not regard the online encyclopedia to be reliable. He added that the Sentinel does not have a policy regarding the use of Wikipedia but that 'maybe we should.' [Karen] Stauffer [the Sentinel's news production editor] noted that the editing desk may use Wikipedia in researching a topic but that it would never use that as a sole source. The instance you cited was a definition appended to an article written by the Sentinel's movie reviewer about the film 'Get Some,' which concerns mixed martial arts. The reviewer, however, was on vacation at the time the article was published in August, and his editor, who was unfamiliar with the subject, thought it required explanation. Of the several descriptions she was able to find, Wikipedia's was the most concise and, therefore, was used."

The editor: Lois Wilson, managing editor, Elmira, New York's Star-Gazette

The story: In September 2007 the paper used a Wikipedia definition for Duchenne muscular dystrophy.

The editor's comment: Her paper decides whether to use Wikipedia "on a case-by-case basis; people are looking for information and are looking for the best sources... Sometimes it's an interesting start to see where it leads you." Wilson notes that when one does a Google search, the first thing that often pops up is a Wikipedia entry, making it more likely to be seen and, perhaps, used. "I think if you can verify the source you're in good shape, but usually you can't."

The editor: Geoff O'Connell, metro editor, the Courier-Post in Cherry Hill, New Jersey

The story: In September 2007 a food feature cited Wikipedia's definition of "satay."

The editor's comment: "We are pretty much of the mind that it can't be used as any kind of final, primary source. That occasionally depends on the subject matter. It can be of as much guidance as anything else on the Internet... I think things would have to move pretty far down the road for us to change our minds."

The editor: Karen Cater, chief of desk editors, the Seattle Times

The story: The Times has not cited Wikipedia as a primary source, but interestingly, on November 21, 2007, the No. 5 most-read story on the newspaper's Web site detailed how some school officials were banning Wikipedia use by their students.

The editor's comment: "We don't have a formal, written policy on using Wikipedia but discourage our desk editors from using it as a primary source for verifying information. As you noted, it can be useful as a starting point to look up other sites or for general information. Some of our editors don't consider Wikipedia to be very reliable at all but others have pointed out that we have to just trust wire services and other sources to a huge extent because we don't have the resources to verify everything independently. Is there a big difference? Wire services have been around longer and have a better proven track record, I suppose."

The editor: Tony Dearing, editor, Michigan's Flint Journal

The story: In August 2007 the paper cited Wikipedia for background on the founding of fantasy football.

The editor's comment: "We do not have a formal policy, but we are working on one and will have it soon. Trained journalists have better resources available to them than Wikipedia. I'm not anti-Wikipedia I think it's an amazing thing...but I'm not satisfied that the accuracy of Wikipedia uniformly would meet the standards that we want as a paper." Dearing adds that Wikipedia is "a useful research tool" but compares it to information from an anonymous source. He notes as well that he has linked to Wikipedia in his blog but "that's completely different from sourcing a story."

Donna Shaw

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