Technology

How journalists could have avoided being fooled by Wikipedia

The Guardian’s Readers’ Editor has highlighted how a fake quote in a Wikipedia entry got used by journalists:

An obituary of French composer Maurice Jarre, which appeared in the Guardian on 31 March, began and ended with quotes. It opened with: “My life has been one long soundtrack. Music was my life, music brought me to life” – and closed with: “Music is how I will be remembered. When I die there will be a final waltz playing in my head, that only I can hear.” The words, however, were not Jarre’s, they were Shane Fitzgerald’s … He added the fake quote shortly after the composer died and just as writers were working on his obituaries. The Guardian … was not the only one taken in by the hoax – the quote was recycled in several other obituaries published in print and on the web.

This makes my previous blog post “What can you trust on Wikipedia?” seem rather prescient, for I wrote just over a month ago:

Check the history of edits on a page: each Wikipedia page comes with a “history” tab that shows you who has changed what and when on the page. It’s a vital compliment to the information on the main page itself. Is the information you are relying on freshly added? What has been edited back and forth? Is the page a well settled one that has been polished for a long time? And so on.

If any of the journalists who got taken in by the hoax quote had followed this advice, they would have got the warning signs that quote might not be genuine.There’s further advice in the full blog post. It’s always possible to get fooled, even by the most impressive looking of sources, but with a few basic precautions Wikipedia can be an assistance rather than a trap waiting to catch you out.

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