Wikipedia: Accurate, credible, reliable? Panelists speak about pros and cons of using the site for sources

By Isaiah Singleton

Misinformation and fake news are forcing journalists to re-evaluate how they navigate information online. Amid the fray, one site has become embedded in their daily consumption of information:  Wikipedia.

Siri and Alexa use it to answer our questions. Google brings it to the top of our search results. Facebook and YouTube are building new ways to pull information from it onto their platforms. Wikipedia is ranked the fifth most popular website in the world. But should we trust it?

Some analysis show that Wikipedia’s user-generated content might be riddled with bias that reflects the makeup of its editors – mostly men. For many, Wikipedia might be seen as a site that lacks accurate and detailed information on women.

“The Unsung Women of Tech and Journalism: A Wikipedia Edit-a-Thon” hosted by SPJ Georgia and General Assembly Atlanta was held on July 21 at General Assembly Ponce Market facility. The event addressed the proper use of this site by journalists and asked why there is a lack of substantial information on women in Wikipedia.

Investigative Reporter for the Atlanta Journal ConstitutionWilloughby Mariano, moderated the Wikipedia event alongside three panelists who talked about the pros and cons of Wikipedia and how accurate it can be or not be: Jovita Moore, news anchor; WSB-TV AtlantaCandace Roberts, data analysis and SQL instructor, General Assembly; and Educational Analyst at Emory UniversityJenn Sutcliffe.

Jovita Moore said Wikipedia usage in the newsroom is for background information as well as a starting or jumping point, but should never be considered as a standalone source. “The consensus in our newsroom is that we may go to Wikipedia for the initial information, but then we want to make sure that we double and triple check that it’s accurate,” she said.

Wikipedia may also be used for a historical marker for younger journalists. “One millennial in the newsroom said to me that she looks at it as a reference for historical information, if it’s something that happened before she was born, she will then try to back it up with other sources. She never goes with just what she reads on Wikipedia,” said Moore.

The WSB-TV anchor said she has a Wikipedia page that was created years ago. “I have a Wiki-page, I do not know who created it, but when I first read it, I was like ‘what?’” she said.

Moore said she found information about her slightly off on her Wikipedia page. “Even my page, I was surprised by some of the things I read, I was like, ‘where’d you get some of this information from?’” she said. “It was worded strangely, which made it seem like my jobs were different than what they actually were.”

In addition, she said she finds it scary that anyone can become a [Wikipedia] contributor. “It’s kind of like, ‘well who makes you the authority or official on that particular topic?’”

She says she tries her best not to use Wikipedia because she finds it inaccurate and worries about its credibility, said Moore. She said she tells her daughter not to use it as a source for her assignments. “My teenage daughter in school, she will get assignments and they will ask for sources, but they will say not Wikipedia.”

“We see that there are a lot of usefulness and drawbacks here regarding Wikipedia,” said Mariano, moderator for the panel. 

For Candance Roberts, she said she doesn’t use Wikipedia very often. But she uses it to learn new terms and knows that her colleagues who are on the business side use it more often to do research, she said.

“From a technology stand point, we want to make sure that everything is as current as possible because things change very rapidly,” said Roberts. In addition, she said her team checks the “page information” section first, to see when was the last time the page was edited to verify content accuracy.

Roberts said because she is an expert in the data analyst field, she may be able to update a Wiki-page with specific content that has material from her expertise. “I don’t normally contribute unless I can back it up with a cited source.”

On the other hand, as an educational analyst, Jenn Sutcliffe said she uses Wikipedia as an educational tool. “I teach faculty how to edit Wikipedia and how to use it for a class assignment,” she said.

Wikipedia has as an organization called The Wikipedia Education Foundation where the foundation coordinates a course of instruction which teaches students how to edit and utilize Wikipedia.

“In academia there is a lot of skepticism about Wikipedia being a credible source, and it’s a source that is changing all of the time,” said Sutcliffe. “If it’s backed up by credible sources in the reference section, then that’s the key part of a Wikipedia article.”

As it pertains to journalists and journalism, Moore said she thinks Wikipedia is important because a journalist is often looking for sources and information. “I think you should always go to the source. So if it’s a person you can actually interview to get the information from, I think that would be best,” she said.

Wikipedia is one of those resources that’s out there. I think it’s something we need to know [as journalists] how to use, Moore said.

“Because of this living organism that we have described Wikipedia as, people can edit and change stuff, and so we need to make sure that the information is credible and as journalists we should always be looking for credible and accurate information,” she said.

As for the question of why so many Wikipedia editors are male, Moore said, “Many of the editors who work with Wikipedia happen to be male, so it’s important for women to be involved so that they know the information that maybe only coming from a certain place and so that information could be subjective or bias. I think all of us, men and women included, have to be aware of the information that is on there.”

After the panel discussion, audience members had the opportunity to edit famous women in journalism Wikipedia pages. Their names were located on note cards on the tables for participants to place on Wikipedia pages. Ganesh Krishnamurthy, who is a part of the Georgia Piedmont Wikimedia’s user group community, presented information that gave insight on how to properly edit and update information without misusing or plagiarizing information.

According to Krishnamurthy, there are seven rules and guidelines to edit a Wikipedia page are: stay neutral, maintain verifiability, no originality, no promotion – conflict of interest (COI), use reliable sources, avoid plagiarism, and test nobility. To most professional journalists, most of these rules are already followed on a daily basis.

“I learned a lot and even got to create a Wikipedia page for an outstanding Georgia journalist, Dr. Carolyn Carlson, said SPJ Georgia President Haisten Willis. Carlson is a Kennesaw State University part-time professor of communication and SPJ Georgia member.

“Wikipedia is here to stay and having a chance to discuss the site’s role and how to improve women’s representation on it made for a fun morning,” said Willis.

This story originally appeared on SPJ’s Region 3 website, SizingUpTheSouth.com.

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