Journalists Citing Wikipedia: Rarely an Option

Reuters has just published its handbook online. A smart move (declaration of interest: I’ve done some training work for Reuters. I’ve got my old dog-eared copy on a shelf nearby.)

I posted (approvingly, but without comment) a retweet from Nieman pointing out that Reuters generally forbids quoting from Wikipedia:

Online information sources which rely on collaborative, voluntary and often anonymous contributions need to be handled with care. Wikipedia, the online “people’s encyclopedia”, can be a good starting point for research, but it should not be used as an attributable source. Do not quote from it or copy from it. The information it contains has not been validated and can change from second to second as contributors add or remove material. Move on to official websites or other sources that are worthy of attribution. Do not link to Wikipedia or similar collaborative encyclopedia sites as a source of background information on any topic. More suitable sites can almost always be found, and indeed are often flagged at the bottom of Wikipedia entries. It is only acceptable to link to an entry on Wikipedia or similar sites when the entry or website itself is the subject of a news story.

This is good policy, but the point could be made more clear. Wikipedia does not encourage the writing of entries that don’t cite existing sources:

Wikipedia does not publish original thought: all material in Wikipedia must be attributable to a reliable, published source.

In other words, if it’s in Wikipedia it should have been somewhere else first, and anyone using the information should go to that original source to check before citing it.

This is true of any journalistic endeavour,  and so it’s no great issue. (“Who told you that?” “What’s your source for that?” “Where did you hear that?”: all questions a journalists asks of someone who tells them something that’s not their own direct experience.)

People should not be offended by Reuters’ polic; indeed, they should be following it already—as writer, as reader, as consumer of Wikipedia.

Confirming is easy enough to do, by the way: just click on the small number that should be next to the information you’re planning to use:


That will take you to the footnote, highlighted in blue:


Then click on the link, if any, in that footnote which should take you back to the source:


If it doesn’t—either because the link no longer works, or the source is an offline one–then you need to do a bit more digging before you’re ready.

Of course, if no footnote exists, then you should be skeptical, or look elsewhere to confirm the information.