Science, Pseudoscience, & Media Literacy

Media Literacy Week: How to Be a Discerning Wikipedia User

Media Literacy Week logo

It’s Media Literacy Week November 5-9, 2018, so I wanted to write about media literacy when it comes to one of my favourite go-to sources of information, Wikipedia.  We’ve come a long way since I was in high school and the World Book Encyclopedia reigned supreme.  Still, with World Book, you could pretty confident that the information you were getting was accurate. On Wikipedia, how do you separate the fact from the fake news?

To begin with, it’s important to understand how Wikipedia works.  According to Wikipedia’s About page, it is collaborative and openly edited, with around 72,000 active contributors.  Anyone can edit a page, although the user must log in first and the IP address is recorded.  I did some editing on Wikipedia several years ago, and was surprised to learn just how much activity goes on behind the scenes.  This can be seen through the tabs at the top of every article page: article (which is what most of us stick to), talk (discussions about issues related to the page), source, and view history.

The fact that anyone can write/edit means that misinformation can be posted.  However, the large army of Wikipedia editors means that often someone will often catch the issue and correct it.  Still, inaccuracies and bias can and do make their way into articles.  So what are some ways that you can evaluate the veracity of what you’re reading?

Is there a message box at the top of the article?

Pages may be flagged by editors for a variety of reasons.  Sometimes these are housekeeping issues that don’t impact the content, but some flags warn about the reliability of the content.  It’s best to consider the overall value of the article in the context of these warnings.

Is a statement referenced?

There is a list of references at the bottom of the article, but within the text, there are superscript numbers to connect specific statements to the corresponding reference.  Hovering the mouse over this number will bring up an info box with the reference information.  If a statement doesn’t cite a reference, it’s possible that it’s accurate and the author simply didn’t provide a citation, but unreferenced information should generally be considered less reliable.

What kind of reference is used?

The types of references used can vary greatly.  Academic journals are generally the most reliable, although some journals are lower quality than others.  Some sources may be heavily biased, such as extremist political websites.  

It can be difficult to determine the quality of books that are referenced, but as a very broad generalization, academic textbooks have titles that are fairly simple and dry, whereas a book with a highly sensationalistic title may be more likely to be biased.

Are there multiple references for the same point?

If there are multiple credible sources agreeing on something, this increases the likelihood that the information is accurate, particularly if the sources can reasonably be assumed to be independent of one another.  Of course, there are no guarantees.

Check the “Talk” page

Articles on controversial subjects can have very active talk pages, which can give you some insight into issues editors have raised about the content.  You may see that a page has been restricted for editing to try to prevent inappropriate material from being added.  The information on the talk page may give some indication of the reliability of the article’s content.


With so much information bombarding us from a myriad of different sources, it can be difficult to tell what’s real and what’s a load of BS.  However, knowing what to look for can make it easier to critically evaluate information, whether that’s on Wikipedia, in the news, or whatever the source.  Improving our media literacy puts all of us in a better position to join in the conversations that matter to us.

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10 thoughts on “Media Literacy Week: How to Be a Discerning Wikipedia User”

  1. This is really interesting. I’ve been in the dark about it! I donate $10 to Wikipedia each year because I use their site for novel-writing research. Just the other day, I read the whole page about Socrates. I’d like to hope their information is reliable. Oh, this is funny. I also, for whatever weird reason, researched Wilford Brimley. According to his Wikipedia page, he supports cockfighting. My dad was like, “That’s slanderous!” And I replied, “They referenced it. It seems legit. He’s spoken out about this publicly.” Also, Wilford Brimley has a reputation for becoming surly and hostile when a director is tenacious enough to say, “Uh, Mr. Brimley, sir, you aren’t portraying your character accurately.” At which point, Wilford is all like, “It’s my character, and if I want him to be a cantankerous old man, then gosh darn it, he will be. You got a problem with that?” Yeah, I love Wikipedia. Thanks for the food for thought!

  2. Golly … this is really useful. I had no idea there were so many contributors. I think historically I’ve been rather naive and if I’ve seen it in print then it MUST be true! Clearly not! But I love Wikipedia for so many of life’s silly little questions – and there are always so many. Great post and thanks! Katie

  3. I used to do a lot of (amateur) academic research as part of experimental archaeology projects when I was in the historic re-enactment group and learned a lot about how to find information on really obscure topics. While the information on Wikipedia was often rather vague, or inaccurate in the details, one of the things it *was* very useful for was getting an overview of a topic and identifying some additional search terms to use – for example names of key people in that field, technical terms, other websites to visit etc. It’s great when you have no idea where to start looking.

  4. And for historic research the internet is an absolute godsend! Now the average person can have access to high resolution digital photos of historic artefacts and manuscripts (and often crowd-sourced translations of these into modern English) that were previously only available to serious academic researchers who were prepared to physically visit small and obscure libraries and museums and who spoke the necessary languages, or not available for public viewing at all.

    1. WordPress can be so frustrating! I just found these comments in my spam. That’s a great point – Wikipedia is a very good place to start, and it can provide some useful ideas for references to check out. It really has made a huge amount of information accessible to people that would otherwise have no way of accessing it, and I think overall that outweighs any downsides.

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