Is Wikipedia reliable as a political source


Julia Neubarth

Julia Neubarth, M.A., is a research assistant at the Institute for Communication Studies and Media Research at LMU Munich. There she is doing research on the spatial relationship of weblogs as part of her dissertation (working title: "Transnational public sphere or national isolation on the Internet? A network and content analysis of country-specific blogospheres.")

Christoph Neuberger

Prof. Dr. Christoph Neuberger is Professor of Media Change at the Institute for Communication Studies and Media Research at LMU Munich. His focus areas include journalism and internet research. From 2006 to 2008 he headed the DFG research project “Mediation Actors, Structures and Services of the Current Internet Public”. This resulted in the book Journalism on the Internet in 2009. Profession - participation - mechanization.

Journalistic research and knowledge advantage on the net

Wikipedia as a source of knowledge has many advantages: it is fast, free of charge and freely accessible internationally - and so it is also used by journalists as a research source. Does this mean that journalism loses its knowledge advantage?

Do journalists lose their informational advantage through the internet? - View of the DAPD newsroom (& copy picture-alliance / dpa)

The internet makes it easy to get information. Search engines deliver a wealth of hits on any topic in a matter of seconds: free and easy to access. However, the origin of the information and the credibility of the sources often remain unclear. The user has to decide for himself how relevant the answers are and what quality they are. In the old media, editorial offices have taken on this task. In addition to the "profession" principle in quality assurance on the Internet, there is now also the "participation" principle: Can Internet citizens create secure knowledge together? The online encyclopedia Wikipedia wants to prove this. The widespread use of Wikipedia suggests that it succeeds in the eyes of many users. Even journalists make use of the new source of knowledge on the Internet. However, the demands placed on professional gatekeepers are particularly high - do they do them justice or do they act negligently when they obtain their knowledge from Wikipedia and other Internet sites?

How journalists do research on the Internet

Research on the Internet in the editorial offices of all media has long become a common way of obtaining information. Researchers in Leipzig, for example, have shown that network research has become established in journalism. Your 2007 survey shows that internet journalists in particular have a high affinity for their own medium. The representative survey "Journalism in Germany" came to the same conclusion in 2005. Journalists then invested an average of 66 minutes per day in online research - out of a total of 117 minutes that they had available for research. More than half of the research time took place online. Since then, the proportion has certainly increased - however, more recent research results are not available.

Where do the journalists look? The Leipzig study found that journalistic Internet research is primarily carried out using search engines. Google is the most important research tool here. In addition, the offshoots of traditional mass media themselves, such as Spiegel Online, are important contact points. Social media have been expanding the range of research sources for a number of years, as surveys of editorial managers at the University of Münster have shown: Both in newsrooms for the press and radio (93 participants, corresponds to 43 percent of all editorial offices) and in Internet editorships (183, 44 percent) was in In 2006/07 the use of weblogs was reluctant, while Wikipedia was used in almost all editorial offices. Three quarters of the Internet editors surveyed even "frequently" used Wikipedia, while this was still the case for two thirds of the print and radio newsrooms. The use of Wikipedia was particularly widespread in the online sections of newspapers and magazines.

Great confidence in Wikipedia

What are journalists looking for on Wikipedia? In the newsrooms of the old media as well as in the Internet editors, Wikipedia primarily served as a reference work for background knowledge. Orientation via internet sources was also often given as a goal. In contrast, journalists read weblogs primarily to identify new topics and gather facts about a current event. More than half of the Internet editors also stated that they often use Wikipedia to cross-check information - this shows that the editors have great trust. And indeed: the interviewed editors gave the encyclopedia an astonishingly good rating. Eighty-three percent of Internet editorial staff said that Wikipedia information was "mostly" reliable. Twelve percent even "(almost) always" thought it was correct. The editors of the newsrooms of the press and radio also rated the information as "mostly" reliable in 76 percent of the cases. Another fifth (21 percent) said they were "almost always" reliable. A fundamentally positive assessment of Wikipedia explains why quality newspapers also use it, as a study from the USA shows. In Germany, Spiegel Online also refers to the relevant Wikipedia entries in its subject archive through a cooperation with Wikimedia.

The high level of trust shown by journalists is all the more surprising given that there have already been a number of cases in which incorrect information from Wikipedia has found its way into journalistic reporting. An example: The 22-year-old British college student Shane Fitzgerald wanted to prove that it is easy to manipulate journalists using Wikipedia. To this end, he changed the biography of the French film music composer Maurice Jarre immediately after his death and gave the deceased a wrong quote. The quote then appeared in the obituaries of various British newspapers, above all in the Guardian. The misinformation was only recognized as such when the student spoke up publicly and pointed out his manipulation.

Lost knowledge advantage

The editorial managers questioned by the University of Münster in 2006/2007 were almost without exception of the opinion that the Internet had a positive effect on the quality of reporting. In the case of Wikipedia, however, this assessment cannot go unchallenged. Journalism loses its knowledge advantage if it uses an encyclopedia that is open to every user. Wikipedia, which was founded in 2001, has been one of the most successful Internet offers for years, as evidenced by the usage statistics from Alexa []: In April 2012, Wikipedia was 6th among the "top sites", both worldwide as well as in Germany. In doing so, she left websites such as Spiegel Online, and Twitter behind. According to a Forsa survey in January 2011, Wikipedia is the first port of call for research on the Internet for around a quarter of Internet users (24 percent). The proportion is higher for men (28 percent) than for women (19 percent).

But Wikipedia is also very present among users who do not use it as the first address for looking up the Internet. The representative ARD / ZDF online study shows a strong increase in use over the past few years in Germany: The at least occasional use of the encyclopedia rose from 47 percent (2007) to 70 percent (2011). A little more than a third of German-speaking Internet users over the age of 14 even used Wikipedia at least once a week. Wikipedia is particularly popular with younger Internet users: 89 percent of 14 to 29 year olds visit it. For 97 percent of all Wikipedia users, the website is only used to obtain information - after all, it is the tiny rest who also write and edit the articles.

It is the knowledge of a minority, not the "wisdom of the many" that can be found on Wikipedia - which does not have to be a disadvantage, as long as the experts can be motivated to pass on their knowledge.

Creeping Wikipedization

The Wikipedization of journalistic research must be seen above all as a symptom of the increased workload and cost reduction in many editorial offices. You save time and money if you are satisfied with Wikipedia. In relation to the extensive use in the editorial offices, however, Wikipedia is rarely referred to as a source - even if 83 percent of the heads of Internet editorial offices are of the opinion that a source is necessary in the case of Wikipedia. Even if there are no studies on this, there is a general tendency to suppress Wikipedia as a source. Just as schoolwork and homework often do not reveal how much they benefit from the encyclopedia, Wikipedia can also be assumed to have a great hidden influence in journalism. It is all the more embarrassing for the reputation of researching journalists when faulty takeovers make the misappropriated source obvious:

The then newly appointed Minister of Economics, Karl-Theodor von und zu Guttenberg, was given an additional first name by an anonymous author in 2009 in his Wikipedia entry, "Wilhelm". The wrong first name then wandered across the German media landscape from Spiegel Online and exposed the importance of Wikipedia for journalistic research and its unhesitating use. In the case of journalism, blind trust in Wikipedia combined with a lack of transparency is particularly problematic: Without the readers being aware of it, the high-reach mass media press and radio spread the Wikipedia content.

Participation instead of profession

Without question, Wikipedia is a temptation - for journalists as well as for other users: How practical would it be to have a huge pool of knowledge on the Internet that you can easily access without hesitation? And Wikipedia actually has many advantages over other sources: It is up-to-date, fast, international, cheap and easily accessible. It can be accessed via smartphone from anywhere in the world with internet reception. But is it really easy to trust Wikipedia like that?

The principle by which it works turns journalism on its head: anyone can create, correct and add to articles - not just those who have qualified for it through their profession. And: First it is published and then checked - and not the other way around, as was customary in news or lexicon editors up to now.

This openness is both strength and weakness of Wikipedia. One result is the considerable fluctuations in quality, which Wikipedia itself points out: "[W] hile some articles are of the highest quality of scholarship, others are admittedly complete rubbish."

In order to improve quality, control tasks are delegated to individual members. Administrators can delete entries and ban authors. The prerequisite for this form of quality assurance is that the wrong information is actually discovered in each case. In addition, this distribution of roles calls into question the principle of "open knowledge". It does happen that administrators play their position of power. And again and again there are so-called "edit wars" between authors.