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Guest Blogger: Travis Taylor from A Writer’s Guide

I must admit Travis, my guest blogger is a source of wonderful inspiration to the writing community. His blog, A Writer’s Guide is one of the best. he updates it frequently, and has some of the best articles out there. I’m guest blogging there today so enjoy Travis, and take time to see his blog.

A big thank you to Rebecca for letting my guest on her blog. She’s an incredible joy to read and incredibly gracious.

So here’s what’s on my mind: when I was in school working on my Journalism degree, one of the things I was taught was to avoid Wikipedia when researching stories.

Wikipedia seems like a great thing: an easily accessible online reference tool. The only problem? All the content is written by YOU/US/HIM/SHE/WHOMEVER. Anyone who wants to add or update an entry can do so and it is up to the reading public to catch any fake or false entries. Wikipedia’s own Web site states that “anyone with Internet access can make changes to Wikipedia articles.” With 65 million users monthly and 75,000 active contributors, the chances of mistakes are huge!

A story I saw on the news highlights this problem. Shane Fitzgerald, a 22-year-old sociology student from Ireland, posted a fake quote for deceased Oscar-winning French composer Maurice Jarre’s Wikipedia page. The fake quote said, “One could say my life itself has been one long soundtrack. Music was my life, music brought me to life, and music is how I will be remembered long after I leave this life. When I die there will be a final waltz playing in my head and that only I can hear.”

The quote was picked up by journalists around the world and reprinted as if it were a real quote!

There is the problem, my friends. As journalists and writers, we have a commitment to the public to research what we are writing. It is in this public trust that we get and maintain our credibility. One we loose that trust, there is almost nothing we can do to get it back.

So what to do? My good friend Mike Tharp, executive editor of the Merced Sun-Star, says, “Reporters (and anybody else who cares about accuracy) should treat Wiki reports, and indeed all online information, the same way they’d treat any other source–confirm, confirm, confirm.”

Merrie Destefano, editor of Victorian Homes Magazine, had similar thoughts. “I think Wikipedia can be a great place to start,” she told me. “But the facts aren’t always accurate. Ultimately, as the writer, you are responsible for making sure your facts are correct. It can mean the difference between getting, or not getting, the next assignment.”

As writers and lovers of words, do any of you think that the Internet can be trusted at all? What’s the difference between something false being printed online and something false being printed in a book? Sure, the Internet has a broader reach, but before computers became the rage you did your all your research from a book at a crazy place called a library.

But I get it, with there being literally dozens of online encyclopedias (including mirriamwebster.com, www.britannica.com and, of course, www.encyclopedia.com)the temptation for a quick answer is great. But whether you are writing an article for a newspaper or magazine, or researching your next novel, you must take the time to double and even triple-check your answers. My own personal rule is that I have to find matching info from three different sites before I believe it. Also, find out if your subject or topic has an official Web site. That’s always a good place to start.

As Mike Tharp pointed out to me, use “the Old Editor’s axiom: If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”

Thanks so much Travis, as always enlightening and informative. For those who love some insightful reading check out Travis’s blog.

6 Comments

  • jenniferneri

    It is news to me that anyone can update Wikipedia. I was aware it was untrustworthy, but I didn't know to what degree. I tend to be old-school and use the library, but with the internet so handy it's easy to look up the 'little things' – thanks for the three site rule of thumb.

  • Alissa

    I remember out of curiosity looking up the town I used to live in on Wikipedia. The entry started off normal enough with census figures and such and then suddenly veered into a rant written by a very opinionated and biased person.

    It's disturbing that all those journalists picked up and used that fake quote. That's laziness on their part.

  • Merrie Destefano

    Great post, Travis!

    I think we'll see the face of journalism change more and more over the next several years. People are taking what they read on the Internet and putting it in the same category as well-researched journalism.

    But I think there will always be a place for the writer who takes his/her work seriously, who takes the time to sift through the facts, and then puts them together with a fresh perspective.

    Thanks for asking for my opinion!

  • AmberInGlass

    Very excellent point, Travis. I definately think that as a whole our society is getting lazier and lazier. The example of that fake quote is just one more piece of evidence to support that. It's a sad day when writers take the easy way out. For a certainty we should all check our facts.

  • Rebecca

    Great post travis! thanks so much always a pleasure.

    People, last comment deteled due to X-rated nature. Please remember children see this site as well!

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