Fact-checking, Wikipedia and basic journalistic credibility

When I was in my early 20s, and working in my first proper journalism job, my features editor and boss at the time, Andy, took me for a pint. But he didn’t take me to the usual pub, he took me to one a little further away from the office. And he took me there because he was about to give me the nicest – but the most dramatic – bollocking I’ve been given before or since. 

I’d filed a feature before I went on holiday, and there had been something like three glaring factual errors in the piece. And he made the point, repeatedly but over a pint, that doing something like that undermines my credibility, his credibility and the credibility of the publication. And if the publication loses its credibility, it loses its ability to make money, and we all lose our jobs.
The internet has done nothing to change this. Get your facts right, or you’re toast. 
To me, it doesn’t matter if you’re “underpaid, overworked and underresourced” – and a good number of journalists are these days, at least compared to, say, two decades ago – this is the bare minimum of credibility you need to call yourself a journalist. Have at least a modicum of professional pride.
Why am I writing this now? It’s in response to both an article on the Register about journalists quoting Wikipedia without fact-checking and Dave Lee’s response to my tweeted link to it. Dave went on to say:

@adders I’m not doubting you. But in a world where the first to publish gets better Google News treatment, this will carry on happening

But does it need to? I think that something is being lost in the clash of two cultures. Too many journalists are trying to mix the culture of fast that’s the defining factor of the internet age, as Dave rightly points out, with the “finished article” culture of traditional journalism. 
Get an article up quickly with the bare facts that your know are true, sure. Don’t stuff it with facts you haven’t checked out – it’s the internet. You can update stories. You don’t have to do it all before you press “publish”. Add the extra stuff as it’s confirmed. 
I started this post with a story of my days as a fresh-faced young journalist. I think I’ve just proved that I’m becoming a grumpy old one. πŸ˜‰
  • Nice post.

    My point isn’t that it’s excusable – but more that we need to look at the cause of the problem.

    Why is a journalist in such a position that all he has time to do is skim-read Wikipedia before posting?

    Is he lazy? Possibly. Can happen, does happen.

    But rather than dismiss all things like this as simply “lazy” – I think we need to look at the bigger picture.

    We need to look at the editor going crazy at them to get the copy online as quick as possible so that they get better search rankings. We need to look at the rush of wire copy that one desk reporter has to deal with before he goes home.

    I’m not saying this wasn’t a massive f*ck up by all involved, I’m just slightly frustrated by the “Journlism FAIL rofl rofl” that the Twitterati so desperately love.

    It’s a wider problem that could actually benefit from some real investigation.

    If, of course, any of us had the time.

  • Barry de la Rosa

    Very good post Adam. However, you could do with some error-checking yourself – of the grammar and spelling type πŸ˜‰

  • Adam Tinworth

    It’s the internet. I can update the post. πŸ™‚

  • cyberdoyle

    good post, good advice.
    Could I also butt in and add a bit more?
    If someone is a journalist, to me it means finding out and publishing the truth. It does not mean rehashing press releases. I see far too much of this on the internet on all the major newspaper sites. Quite often they are deliberately misleading and the journo hasn’t spotted it and repeats it, thus compounding the ‘free advertising’ element.
    Regarding the rest of your advice its exactly right.

  • Adam Tinworth

    Quite agree. It’s one of a whole set of problems that arise out of the partial transition to online journalism. Too many bad habits being brought along, rather than swept away in the change.

  • Adam Tinworth

    I think the root causes of the problem are actually manifold – one of them is the sort of wilful ignorance of anything internet-related which leads to people using Wikipedia without really understanding how it operates.

    But oddly enough, I started this blog back in 2003 partially to defend journalism from that sort of smug internet commentary. And in the time since, I’ve learnt that some things are just indefensible. The case in question is, at the very least, sloppy journalism. And there’s no other way of describing it.

  • I don’t think there’s a journalist in the world who doesn’t understand precisely how Wikipedia works. Well — no journo that goes near the internet, anyway.

    The simple fact is, Wikipedia is often a brilliant source. Not only is it crazily up-to-date, it’s also choc-full with community members who make sure as much as possible is linked up and sourced.

    And in a world where online copy has to be written in a matter of minutes – it’s no surprise that journos head straight for it.

    That fact is, the same journos who wrote the Vera Lynn-error probably used Wikipedia 99 times before without issue. That doesn’t make it alright, of course, but you really have to blame the system for a lot of that.

    There’s a pattern to these ‘fails’. They’re always – as far as I can tell – in straight news pieces. Any journo given actual time to work out a story doesn’t make these errors. It’s time we gave finding out true information the respect it deserves.

  • Adam Tinworth

    I don’t think there’s a journalist in the world who doesn’t understand precisely how Wikipedia works.

    Alas, I know for sure that you are wrong in this, as I have encountered more than a few of them.

    I suspect that those of us who work principally online tend to over-estimate the levels of understanding of the public as a whole. I know a university lecturer who asked her (science) undergraduates who provided Wikipedia. “The government,” was the general answer…

  • But isn’t asking who provided it a different question?

    Not knowing who Jimmy Wales and the Wikimedia Foundation are is one thing – but seriously, not knowing that Wikipedia is a big editable encyclopaedia? Who are these people that don’t know that?

    It’s not about the understanding of the public – I’m talking about journos themselves. I’ve never met a journalist, in online, who doesn’t know how Wikipedia works.

  • These people are a bunch of genetics undergraduates, and no, they had no idea that it was a big editable encyclopaedia. They just thought it was an encyclopaedia.

    We live in a tech bubble. There’s a lot of people outside that bubble.

  • Cal

    Seriously? The first thing I was told about sources and referencing on the first week of a Foundation Degree course was Do Not Use Wikipedia.

  • This was actually the opening salvo in How To Use Wikipedia Intelligently, which was an evolution from the previously-held Do Not Use Wikipedia viewpoint. πŸ™‚