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Journalism

Stop me if you’ve heard this one…

News wires were buzzing with news of yet another Wikipedia hoax. Last week Shane Fitzgerald, a student at University College Dublin, revealed he had inserted a fake quote on the Wikipedia entry of French composer Maurice Jarre who died at the end of March. The quote was used by bloggers and newspapers around the world (including the UK’s Guardian) until Fitzgerald came clean on his research “experiment”.

So what? This isn’t the first Wikipedia hoax to have made the headlines, and it certainly wont be the last. Nevertheless, it’s not without significance. No sooner had the hoax been revealed, the commentariat chimed in with their two cents on sloppy journalism and, predictably, the value of Wikipedia.

Granted, the hoax didn’t do the profession any favors. Newspapers are suffering terribly in the current recession and their decline is happening at a time when the demand for quality journalism has never been greater. Budgets are tight and so are resources. In the “good old days” (whenever they were), a journalist could rely on a sub-editor to check quotes and sources. Alas, no more. When money’s tight, subs and fact checkers are the first to go. Why? Because the discipline of checking sources is something every journalist is expected to possess. It’s the first thing they teach you at journalism school, and the last thing they remind you of before they kick you out. The fact that more than one obituary writer was caught cribbing Wikipedia without checking sources is a worrying trend indeed, especially for those who rely on the media to inform their work – in other words, everyone working in international affairs.

But this is not to lament the the fate of the press. After all, sloppy research is not specific to journalists. It is increasingly common in government circles too. Our growing reliance on open sources of information for research and policymaking purposes places greater demand on the proper training of government employees when it comes to information literacy.

The UK government’s 2003 report on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (more commonly known as the “Dodgy Dossier”) serves as the best example of what’s at stake. Not only had the government’s analysts failed to attribute the sources they used (thus prompting accusations of plagiarism), they also forgot to correct the original spelling mistakes.

Fitzgerald’s hoax may have left egg on the face of newspaper editors around the world. But it also offers a warning to anyone whose basic tool of work is the internet.

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