When I reported for a major newspaper we’ll call The Daily Planet, I once dropped by the newsroom library just as a researcher was irritably emailing an editor to complain that a staff writer had cited Wikipedia.
Look! she said. Again! Wikipedia’s not a source.
Editors would agree. Like any good newsroom, The Daily Planet had a policy against sourcing information to Wikipedia, which can be about as reliable as writing, “According to some guy I overhead on the train.”
Yet a database search reveals that the phrase “according to Wikipedia” has sneaked into that newspaper paper 12 times since 2005. Other major news organizations have slipped up as recently as this week. Plus, even when reporters aren’t citing Wikipedia, they often draw their first impressions of your organization there.
What is it about Wikipedia that appeals to information-seekers—and what can you learn from it? Think from the perspective of a frantically Googling reporter who has never heard of your organization, doesn’t know what you produce and has 20 minutes to crank out a brief about a fire at your plant.
Here are some lessons from the site:
1. Wikipedia summarizes essential information.
Yes, you put a lot of thought that “about us” section and its multiple sub-pages, making sure we know about your organization’s commitment to sustainability and niceness. But did you write it with the assumption that everybody knows who you are and what you produce?
I won’t name and shame, but consider a real corporation that goes by an abbreviation. I’ll dub it XYZ Co.
Click on the website’s “about” tab, and you will find this message: “[XYZ] is a critical link that connects consumers with the global marketplace. For more than 160 years, [XYZ] has played a vital role in building and sustaining this nation’s economy.”
Great. So, is it a bank? A shipping company? A telecom with a history dating to the days of the telegraph? True, there are photos of trains and a drop-down subsection on “our railroad,” but reporters need the information in words.
Under “our railroad,” by the way, there are no figures beyond a brief history. The “financial information” drop-down refers to “Forms 10-K, 10-Q and 8-K” but doesn’t mention annual revenue.
By contrast, Wikipedia’s first 116 words reveal that XYZ is one of the largest freight railroad networks in North America and that it has 48,000 employees, more than 8,000 locomotives and 32,500 miles of track in 28 states.
2. Wikipedia doesn’t make reporters click around to different pages.
In fairness, XYZ links to a helpful fact sheet from the right-hand margin of the “about” page, but that is easily overlooked in a list of links.
Likewise, consider the website of Backless Gown Hospital Corp. (not its real name). A reporter on deadline goes to the home page. There it is—the “about” link! The drop-down offers further options. Let’s click through to “About [Backless Gown].” This page offers information on the year in review and how the hospital gives back to the community, but no summary of the organization.
Wait! There’s a newsroom link. Although that leads to some interesting-looking headlines on topics such as the connection between maternal weight and infant death, I’m not finding general information on the hospital.
Back to the drop-down. “Facts and stats”? Scrolling down the page, I find the information I was looking for, but compare the opening of this page with Wikipedia:
- Company website: “[Backless Gown], a world-renowned health care provider and insurer based in [hometown], is inventing new models of accountable, cost-effective, patient-centered care.”
- Wikipedia. “[Backless Gown] is a $ 10 billion integrated global nonprofit health enterprise that has more than 62,000 employees, 21 hospitals with more than 5,100 licensed beds, 400 clinical locations including outpatient sites and doctors’ offices, a 2.3 million-member health insurance division, as well as commercial and international ventures.”
3. Wikipedia gets updated.
Unreliable though it may be, the Wikipedia page for any major organization gets a lot of scrutiny—not only from fans and critics, but from communicators themselves. I know of one chief executive who would phone communicators at home and ask them to change the Wikipedia entry when an error cropped up (a practice Wikipedia frowns on). Clearly, some executives and PR pros watch what the website says about them.
By contrast, how often does the CEO check your own “about us” page? As a reporter I once had to correct outdated information I got from an organization’s own “about us” page. Yes, you’re right—I should have called to double-check. Still, this raises the question of why the company thinks journalists should consider its website more reliable than Wikipedia.
4. Wikipedia makes it easy to find further experts.
Even knowing that Wikipedia is unreliable, reporters often use it to dig deeper into a topic.
If a Wikipedia contributor offers an interesting fact, you can click on the footnote and check out the source, whether it’s a newspaper article or academic study. This often leads reporters to industry experts or people with advanced degrees in a given subject area.
How easy is it for a reporter seeking expert sources to find them on your website?
Now, don’t even get me started about that “contact us” form.