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

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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.

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