Saturday, December 17, 2005

only as good as your last edit

The news this week that Wikipedia had passed a research test will have relieved founder Jimmy Wales and the many thousands of people who read its articles. What's interesting to discuss is whether facts and comment on Wikipedia can be considered an authoritative source for journalists.
When researching for the London-based national newspaper I work for, I often wonder about Wikipedia. Previously I have used it as a gateway to point me in the right direction. It has been extremely useful for me as a journalist in this sense, and links at the end of articles often jump to established authorities in specific areas.

But has Wikipedia become a valid authority itself? Probably not. At the present time, I would still refrain from quoting from Wikipedia in an article on any given subject, simply because I know the tiny team employed by Jimmy Wales cannot possibly check the millions of facts contained within.

Even if every entry was given a thorough going over in the same way British journal Nature did for Wikipedia's science pages, I still wouldn't be able to quote it. It simply doesn't have an aura of authenticity. This is to be expected - Wikipedia is only five years old. Compare this with Encyclopedia Britannica for example, which has been going for since 1768, and you start to get the picture.

Another hindrance to the authority value of Wikipedia, and indeed almost everything on the web, including journalism, is anonymity and ease of publishing. Because of this, web publications struggle for respect. This situation is changing. There are many websites that can be considered authoritative (although they usually carry the weight of an established name, like the BBC or The Guardian). But web journalism, like the Internet, is still in its relative infancy.

If Wikipedia wishes to be considered a credible, quotable authoritative source it will take many more accuracy studies like the one conducted by Nature. But it also needs to invest more in fact checking and expert consultation. And it's not just Wikipedia either. A wholesale image change of web journalism needs to take place. Then, perhaps, we will see web journalist salaries rise and sweat on the brow of Encyclopedia Britannica.

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