The Importance of Fact Checking

Aspiring journalists should probably avoid using Wikipedia as a credible source, especially if the posted information has no link to a source.

22-year-old University College Dublin student, Shane Fitzgerald fooled journalists and internet browsers for over a month when he posted a false quote by the newly late French composer, Maurice Jarre:

A full month went by and nobody noticed the editorial fraud. So Fitzgerald told several media outlets in an e-mail and the corrections began.

“I was really shocked at the results from the experiment,” Fitzgerald, 22, said Monday in an interview a week after one newspaper at fault, The Guardian of Britain, became the first to admit its obituarist lifted material straight from Wikipedia.

“I am 100 percent convinced that if I hadn’t come forward, that quote would have gone down in history as something Maurice Jarre said, instead of something I made up,” he said. “It would have become another example where, once anything is printed enough times in the media without challenge, it becomes fact.”

So far, The Guardian is the only publication to make a public mea culpa, while others have eliminated or amended their online obituaries without any reference to the original version — or in a few cases, still are citing Fitzgerald’s florid prose weeks after he pointed out its true origin.

The sociology student said he was experimenting to see how our “globalized, increasingly Internet-dependent media was upholding accuracy and accountability in an age of instant news.”

Wikipedia should never be the first news source for a journalist, even though information on Maurice Jarre is a struggle to find. The Google and Yahoo! searches will take you to his Wikipedia and Internet Movie Database pages, and then there are multiple obituaries dedicated to him.

One blogger alluded to this through the use of someone else’s quote:

“I have to say I am astonished at the lack of coverage on the music blogs of the death of Maurice Jarre. He may not have been a musical genius – whatever that means. But his music, which was never less than wonderfully crafted, touched many, many more than that of, say, Schoenberg,” said Bob Shingleton.

As someone who wants to be a journalist, I understand how difficult it can be to dig through hundreds of websites, journals, interviews, and news stories to find one reliable quote, but in the end, the ethical journalist would publish an incomplete story over a false one. I’d rather turn in a story without a quote than later explain that my Wikipedia quote turned out to be made up.

This should be a lesson to scholarly students who take the easy route when writing papers. I don’t want to say that Wikipedia is not at all trustworthy, but if a false quote can remain on a website for over a month, the source is questionable. Instead of copying and pasting information straight from Wikipedia, seek academic online journals for whatever facts you need. Good information is at your disposal, even though it’s surprisingly harder to find now with the advancement of technology.


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