Journalism students turn to Wikipedia to publish stories

Fifty-two percent of students said they frequently used Wikipedia for class work.
Fifty-two percent of students in a recent survey said they frequently use Wikipedia for class work.

College students know the online resource of which they dare not speak: Wikipedia, the voluminous internet encyclopedia demonized by many in higher education—and a resource that two University of Denver instructors use as a centerpiece of their curriculum.

Denver journalism students are writing Wikipedia entries as part of a curriculum that stresses online writing and content creation as readers move to the web en masse.

Journalism instructors Lynn Schofield Clark and Christof Demont-Heinrich said students are told to check their sourcing carefully, just as they would for an assignment at a local newspaper.

“There’s a sense of anxiety about it, because professors have a pretty negative attitude toward Wikipedia,” said Demont-Heinrich, who first assigned the Wikipedia writing to students in his introductory course taught during the university’s recent winter semester.

“Students are leery about mentioning Wikipedia, because they might be subjected to criticism. … But I tell them it’s an online source of knowledge that just has some information that might be questionable, but that doesn’t mean you have to dismiss all of [its content].”

Students in the university’s Media, Film, and Journalism Studies Department have composed 24 Wikipedia articles this year, covering everything from the gold standard to San Juan Mountains to bimettalism, an antiquated monetary standard.

Demont-Heinrich said the Wikipedia entries didn’t require old-school shoe leather reporting—because the online encyclopedia bars the use of original quotes—but they taught students how to thoroughly research a topic before publishing to a site viewed by more than 68 million people a month.

“I see journalism as being completely online within the next two to five years,” he said. “If you’re not trained to expect that and write for that, then you’re not going to be ready for the work world.”

The popular Ivory Tower belief that Wikipedia’s bottom-up approach to content creation and editing is unreliable and unfit for research in part drove Demont-Heinrich to assign his students Wikipedia writing assignments.

“One of the reasons I wanted to assign [writing Wikipedia entries] is to combat that view,” he said. “I tell students to use it as an information portal … and you can see what information has been sourced and see that they’re reliable sources. Wikipedia can be a great resource.”

Research published this month in the journal First Monday showed that eight out of 10 students surveyed said they used Wikipedia for background knowledge. Fifty-two percent of respondents said they frequently used the web-based collaborative encyclopedia, “even if an instructor advised against it.”

Twenty-two percent said they rarely or never used the site. Only 17 percent of student respondents said they used Wikipedia because it was more reliable than other web sites.

About 2,300 students responded to the survey, according to the First Monday web site.

“Students reported they could not begin their research process until they had an idea of what they were going to write about,” the study said. “They did not think that they could approach an instructor about an assignment, until they knew more about their topic. They did not use a scholarly research database early on, given the specificity of academic journal content.”

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