Is Wikipedia an Accurate Source? (And Can Editors Alter Sourced Material?)

Q: I’m a magazine feature writer and one of my editors changed a statistic in my story that I had attributed to Wikipedia. She maintains Wikipedia is an inaccurate source.  However, if I attribute my facts properly, does she have a right to alter my statistic?— Lynn M.

A: If editors feel uncomfortable with an article’s contents, they most certainly can (and should) make changes and alterations. They’re supposed to vet and fact-check the information. It’s part of the job.

It’s important to remember that attribution isn’t meant as a safety net for reporting false facts. The point of attributing information to a source is two-fold: 1) to give credit where credit is due and 2) to give validity to the information, showing it’s coming from reputable person (or organization). If your source isn’t reputable, your article isn’t.

This brings me to Wikipedia. As journalists, we love the site because it offers an excellent starting point to our research (underline, bold, highlight and draw squiggles around the words “starting point”). With a few clicks, you can find leads on nearly anything, along with links to better articles on each subject. But you can’t trust Wikipedia. It can be updated and edited by anyone; that’s right, anyone—you, me, that neighbor down the street who everyone describes as “sketchy.” There’s no real due diligence involved to guarantee accuracy and, as a journalist, you can’t accept inaccuracy.

Again, that doesn’t mean that the site isn’t useful. Hell, I probably check it several times a day (one can never know enough about the Back to the Future trilogy). Just use it as a starting point to find more reliable sources. Your editors (and audience) will thank you for it.

Brian A. Klems is the online managing editor of Writer’s Digest magazine.

Have a question for me? Feel free to post it in the comments section below or e-mail me at WritersDig@fwpubs.com with “Q&Q” in the subject line. Come back each Tuesday as I try to give you more insight into the writing life.

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0 thoughts on “Is Wikipedia an Accurate Source? (And Can Editors Alter Sourced Material?)

  1. Leigh Ann Hubbard

    Thank you SO MUCH for addressing the Wikipedia issue. You are right on. I feel like there should be PSAs out there about the topic. It would save editors some trouble. 😉

    Also, to Lynn M: The editor has a right to change anything he or she wants. You should have signed a contract saying that. If you didn’t sign a contract, that ain’t good. (Shout out to you English teachers!) If you did, it would be best to read and understand it. There could be other things in there, such as reuse clauses, of which you really need to be aware.

  2. D. Burridge

    Dear Steven,

    I have serious doubts you were an English teacher. The writer’s name is Brian, not Brain, and you never closed your first parenthetical phrase. However, I have read the English papers submitted by my children to their teachers that received grades well above average, and realize scholastic standards have diminished drastically in the last few decades, so I could be wrong.

  3. Steven M. Nesbit

    Brain,
    I just wanted to let you know how refreshing it is to read your grammatical replies to people. I’m a retired English teacher of 32 years (which has given me the time to renew my love of writing, and reading your column has kept me sharp regarding our standard language. Below is a question for you:

    What spelling of to (to, too, or two) would you use in this sentence? And why?

    There are three (to’s, too’s or two’s)in the English language.

  4. soly

    Uh, oh! I just quoted the Wikipedia in my recent article "On Love" published in a local paper here in my home town for its Valentine’s Day issue. Did you say you can’t trust Wikipedia?
    I don’t know about this, but somehow, I like its description of Love. Okay, from now on, I’ll be very careful in what I read on Wikipedia. Thanks a lot, Brian for the info.

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