“According to Wikipedia…”


Folksinger Odetta performed “This Little Light…” on David Letterman’s first show after 9/11. Photographed by Jac. de Nijs / Anefo in 1961; public domain.

This week, I heard a wonderful news story about the song “This Little Light of Mine.” It was a thoughtful, in-depth exploration of a beloved piece of Americana — and exactly the kind of news story any Wikipedia contributor (myself, for instance) would be tempted to include as a citation in the relevant Wikipedia article.

Graphic by Niabot/Wikimedia Foundation, licensed CC BY-SA.

Unfortunately, one small detail shakes my confidence in the reporting, and raises a general concern about the way even the most reputable news sources, like NPR’s “All Things Considered,” treat the sources they use.

About halfway through the story, the reporter delves into the origin of the song, stating:

“Wikipedia and some books credit Harry Dixon Loes.”

The problem: Wikipedia, whose production model differs significantly from traditional publishers, is not a distinct entity, and as such cannot itself issue “credit” or make claims.

While the content on Wikipedia may offer great value on the whole, the site can’t be relied on to verify any specific point. You may have heard, for instance, of the John Seigenthaler hoax, in which a Wikipedia contributor falsely linked a former U.S. attorney general to the deaths of JFK and RFK. Wikipedia contributors strive to correct false or questionable information, and in many cases do an admirable job; but as the Seigenthaler case clearly shows, the process can fail spectacularly. But as a core principle, Wikipedia’s designers have always insisted that “anyone can edit” — without first establishing credentials, or even proving their worthy intentions. Many of the contributions that come in are worthwhile. Over time, problematic additions are caught and corrected by other Wikipedia contributors; but by design, the site lacks any mechanism to fully guarantee the accuracy of any specific claim.

It is essential to regard Wikipedia as a platform, enabling individuals to make claims and back them up with authoritative citations, rather than as a publisher using robust editorial processes and offering its claims as reliable facts. Crediting an individual with adding a claim to Wikipedia is fine (though digging up the proper attribution may take some effort); using Wikipedia as a guide to find more reliable sources, and then citing those sources directly, is even better. But crediting Wikipedia itself is problematic, and is something any journalist should avoid, unless mentioning it as one link in a chain leading to a more authoritative source. At best, crediting Wikipedia imparts information with little value to the listener; at worst, it gives the listener undue confidence in a piece of original research that may or may not be true, and suggests to the listener that NPR erroneously regards Wikipedia as an authoritative source for such information.

Wikipedia’s editors offer guidance about citing Wikipedia. The first words of this essay:

“We advise special caution when using Wikipedia as a source for research projects.”

(Even this page carries a banner warning the reader not to take its contents too seriously as an expression of Wikipedia policy; but the point it makes should resonate at first glance with anyone who has carefully considered Wikipedia’s production model.)

Shining a Light on “This Little Light of Mine”

As it turns out, the question of who wrote the spiritual anthem “This Little Light of Mine” provides an excellent example to expose how Wikipedia works, and why it should not be treated as an authority on individual facts.

Comic by Randall Munroe/xkcd. Licensed CC BY-NC.

Harry Dixon Loes’ name was first added to the Wikipedia article about the song a decade ago. The person who made the addition used the name “SingingSongsOfSunshine” — and that’s about all that anyone could tell you about their identity. (The most trusted Wikipedia administrators could determine the user’s IP address; but that wouldn’t tell you much, and it’s considered highly privileged information, to be used only in combating extreme cases of vandalism or harassment.) This Wikipedia username was only ever used to make three edits to Wikipedia, all on the same day in 2008. All three were minor changes to articles about gospel songs; none included any suggestion about the source for the information added. The person did not voluntarily disclose anything about their identity, nor did they engage in any kind of discussion under that account.

Two years later, somebody else asked on the article’s talk page, “Where is the proof of the original author?” This person didn’t even bother to use a Wikipedia account. Nobody ever responded. In 2012, another Wikipedia contributor placed a banner at the top of the article, indicating that the article had insufficient citations. That banner remains to this day. This person, known as “VernoWhitney,” unlike the others mentioned in this piece, is a dedicated Wikipedia contributor, having made several hundred edits to the site since first registering in 2010.

In February 2018, another user added a citation to justify Mr. Loes’ authorship. The citation added is to an article on ThoughtCo.com; the article was apparently written in 2017, but lists no sources. Did the ThoughtCo article use the Wikipedia article as its source? I’ve never heard of ThoughtCo before, but at first glance, I’d say it looks like a “ content farm” — the kind of site a Wikipedia contributor is expected to view with great skepticism. It seems entirely plausible that the ThoughtCo author would have used Wikipedia as a source, introducing a problem referred to by xkcd author Randall Munroe as “ citogenesis.” Like the earlier Wikipedia user, this individual — going by “Ddallender” — only ever made three tiny edits to Wikipedia, and never disclosed any information about themselves. As with the initial addition in 2008, neither the public nor any Wikipedia administrator has any way to know who this was.

While Wikipedia’s reliability is worthy of healthy skepticism, the site does excel in other areas, many of which set it apart from traditional publishers. Journalists, and critical readers in general, appreciate many of Wikipedia’s features. The research required for this piece, for instance, is enabled by Wikipedia’s radically transparent processes. I did not need any special access to the site, or to its authors, to identify which accounts made what changes, or when. Merely knowing which buttons to click will yield a wealth of information about any Wikipedia article.

On the whole, “All Things Considered” is the kind of journalistic source Wikipedia contributors love to use in composing Wikipedia content. But Wikipedia should be citing “All Things Considered,” not the other way around. I hope that “All Things Considered” will continue to use Wikipedia in its research; but in so doing, it must apply considerable judgment before reporting any of Wikipedia’s contents. Academic studies have found that Wikipedia’s content is often excellent; but part of that excellence derives from the transparency we offer in terms of our sources. We hope to guide our readers to authoritative sources, and enable them to make their own judgment about contentious points, like the authorship of a classic entry in the American songbook. If Wikipedia’s word is reported as final, the public may be misinformed, and “All Things Considered” may engender doubts about its reporting practices among those listeners who are familiar with Wikipedia’s methods.

Pete Forsyth is the principal of Wiki Strategies, a Wikipedia training and consulting company founded in 2009. For more on the connections between Wikipedia and journalism, see “The Future of Journalism in a Wikipedia World.” For a current initiative to improve Wikipedia’s coverage of news outlets, see Newspapers on Wikipedia.

Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com on August 8, 2018.