Research, Writing, and Wikipedia

news_pageA self-described “old newspaper man” recently asked me about a sign in my library.  The sign promotes an electronic version of The Boston Globe.   He asked if the school library had to pay for the service.  I told him that it was part of The Globe’s Newspapers in Education program and that it was free.  He responded by saying, “That’s why they’re struggling.  They need to charge for these things.”  As it turns out, The Globe is where he had worked—as a wire service guy.  In addition to suggesting that the paper start charging for electronic content, he went on to say that the “bloated” organization must be substantially downsized.  I was surprised at this.  I thought that papers had been making cuts.  I wondered aloud if the costs of printing and delivery were insurmountable, and if the paper (and others) were doomed by that issue alone.  In his opinion, the viability of newspapers is tied to controlling the costs of workers.  Efficiency is the name of the game, he said.  There’s simply way too much waste.

If this is the main issue, and newspapers truly are bloated with employees, then printed errors of fact are pretty hard to explain.  Yet, the AP reports that an Irish university student duped newspapers around the world by fabricating a wordy quote and inserting it into a Wikipedia article.   The student deliberately set out to see how much journalists relied on Wikipedia for obituary writing.  In this case, it was used a lot and used carelessly.

Wikipedia is a favorite research tool of students at all grade levels, including college.  Librarians, teachers, and professors routinely caution against its use for anything more than basic, step-one research.  It’s open-source, after all, and can be edited at any time.  While many articles are closely monitored by users interested in accuracy, others are not.  If a researcher uses the wrong article at the wrong time, therefore, truth will be sacrificed.  This lesson, repeated in classrooms around the world, is apparently not repeated in news rooms around the world.

If an old newspaper man is to be believed, and newspapers are still substantially staffed, errors of fact must result merely from sloppy research.  If substantial mistakes can’t be ascribed to job cuts and too few staffers trying to do too many things, then the basics of research and Wikipedia’s use could and should be followed by the pros, and not just school students.  Learn about Wikipedia as a research tool.

Photo credit: Rupert Young

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