Throughout my academic and professional career, information gathering has been a critical part of everything I do. As students, we’re often told early on in any assignment that Wikipedia is not considered a valid source. As journalists, citing Wikipedia is often regarded as weak sourcing or “lazy” reporting.
Both scenarios are quite understandable considering the founding principles of Wikipedia rest heavily on the site being an “open and very publicly editable series of Web pages,” according to Wiki’s founders, Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger. Despite efforts to enforce sourcing when any new information is added to the site, the fact that virtually anyone can edit Wikipedia pages has created a societal hesitation to take anything written on the page at face value.
Instead, and I include myself in this statement, people tend to start their investigations and background gathering for a story on Wikipedia, familiarizing themselves with a quick intro to a topic followed up by (hopefully) extensive fact checking and further research done elsewhere.
On social media news site Mashable, which ironically I recently discovered via Twitter, I found an article discussing what the future holds for Wikipedia is as it marks its 10th year anniversary. According to The Economist, Wikipedia has reportedly seen a decline in regular contributors to the English-language encyclopedia. The article notes, “it dropped from around 54,000 at its peak in March 2007 to some 35,000 in September 2010. A similar trend has been visible in some foreign-language versions.”
This made me wonder whether Wikipedia is losing its status as a quick go-to for online information gathering as people are instructed to avoid sourcing/relying on its information, or if there is just a cap on how much information can really be written about certain topics and therefore some pages are being left as is.
For journalists, the possibility that Wikipedia is losing some of its vigor may simply be further verification that we should not be exclusively relying on its information, and perhaps even be more wary when we use it as an initial turning point in an investigation.
Perhaps the main problem with this is that Wikipedia has been so ingrained in most of our research processes (and it is typically the first or second result when looking up things in a search engine) that despite this decline in contributions from the general public and self-described Wiki-moderators, we may still reach out to it from time to time. Just like most things, once we’ve become accustomed to something, it’s hard to break the habit, even when people tell us it’s bad for us.
In the meantime, Wikipedia doesn’t seem to be disappearing anytime soon, so it’s perhaps just wise to remain vigilant when using publicly edited sites for information gathering, particularly for investigative reporting where great sources are often available if you know where to look.