Journalism in an age of Wikipedia

As media conglomerates become more powerful and national newspapers continue to suffer, many amateur reporters are taking journalism into their own hands – online.

Despite criticism about its credibility, Wikipedia remains the most widely read online encyclopedia. Since it was launched in 2001, the site has accumulated more than 8 million articles with thousands of anonymous contributors.

Though the writing-base expands across the nation, several members of the GW community also contribute frequently. Some call it an experiment in journalism, while others remain skeptical about the site’s credibility.

“Getting out good information so people can read it and learn more about whatever it is, that’s a pretty cool thing,” said Andrew Wiseman, a 2002 GW graduate and frequent contributor to the site. On his Wikipedia profile, he lists some of his current tasks: “Patrolling Akon and Go go,” “Cleanup Asshole (game),” and “Patrolling and cleaning up Beer pong and other similar articles.”

“I (also) like to be able to read about all this random stuff, things I didn’t know that much about before,” Wiseman said.

His geography major at GW influenced some of his contributions, he said. On the GW Wikipedia page, he inserted a satellite image of Foggy Bottom. Wiseman, who now creates maps for the D.C. government and operates the GW basketball blog Colonialhoops.com, said Wikipedia is truly a community effort.

“I start a skeleton of the article, maybe a couple of paragraphs, and hopefully someone else will take it from there and flesh it out,” he said.

Representative for the site reflected this emphasis on community, rather than having an administrative hierarchy.

“We don’t get involved with the editorial process. Our six full-time employees just deal with administration,” said Sandra Ordonez, Wikipedia’s communication manager. “Every language version of Wikipedia is entirely self-governing.”

Although Wikipedia is often used as an informal resource, some GW professors have put it to use in the classroom.

Professor Ryan Jerving devoted part of his UW-20 class to this idea of “social networking and aggregate creation” by asking his students to contribute to Wikipedia, YouTube or a similar site.

“I wanted them to get a sense of how this mode of collaborative creation changes some of our basic concepts of originality, authorship and ownership,” he said.

Jerving, an occasional contributor who said he once corrected every misspelling of “ukulele” on the site, explained that many of his colleagues are trying to emphasize the site’s flawed credibility.

“Teachers will go on the site and change something on purpose to show their students how easy it is and why they shouldn’t trust it,” he said.

Professors often agree that because of the amateur nature of it’s contributors, the site should not be used as an academic source.

“Wikipedia is a great place to start doing research, but it’s just that, a place to start,” said Janet Steele, a journalism professor in the School of Media and Public Affairs. “You can get the broad outlines of an issue . but for anything more than that you need to go to traditional sources.”

Journalism professor Michael Zuckerman said the site – because of its community nature – is real journalism at work, rather than just an encyclopedia.

“I suppose I’m a heretic in academic circles but, generally speaking, I have found Wikipedia to be as good an Internet source as any and, in fact, better than most,” he said.

“I have a fairly strong feeling that ‘crowd sourcing’ – when applied on a broad enough platform, such as Wikipedia – does a fairly good job of getting to the truth of a matter,” Zuckerman said, “just as a reporter or investigator distills certain truths about an event after interviewing a large number of witnesses.”

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