One of the core principles that underlies the Wikipedia is that of verifiability. The Wikipedia says:
All information in Wikipedia must be verifiable…. Verifiability, and not truth, is one of the fundamental requirements for inclusion in Wikipedia; truth, of itself, is not a substitute for meeting the verifiability requirement. No matter how convinced you are that something is true, do not add it unless it is verifiable. [Emphasis in the original.]
That principle of verification is expressed in the Wikipedia prohibition against original research.
The prohibition against OR means that all material added to articles must be attributable to a reliable published source.
A final key principle of the Wikipedia is a neutral point of view.
Editing from a neutral point of view (NPOV) means representing fairly, proportionately, and as far as possible without bias, all significant views that have been published by reliable sources. [Emphasis in the original.]
The Wikipedia policies I’ve listed are both a great weakness and a limitation of the Wikipedia because in practice, it is easy to get some things into the Wikipedia – all you need is a newspaper to say it first and it is considered reliable. Other things are very hard to document, and what is easy to do is more often done than what it is hard to do. What sometimes happens at the Wikipedia, and in particular with topics on current events, is that the Wikipedia becomes more or less a summary of selected online newspaper coverage.
The Wikipedia principles I have described are wholly inappropriate for journalists. Journalists must be able to verify what they say (watch the movie All the President’s Men for superb dramatization of this principle), but they must often go beyond published sources and do original research into sources that they can verify, but the public in practice cannot1. Just as it is easy to get something into the Wikipedia just because a newspaper says it, it is easy to get something into a newspaper when a politician or their spokesperson says it – so long as it makes a good sound bite, whether it is true or not. “There are death panels” is sexy; “there are no death panels” is not. “Controversy swirls around death panels” is the sexiest of all.
Rather than merely repeating both sides of an issue, when one of those sides is a flat-out lie (e.g. Sarah Palin’s death panels), I believe that is the responsibility of every journalist to identify the lie each and every time they repeat it. Lies do not deserve equal billing. The media in the main is not doing this2.
When journalists think that their job is done after they report what both sides have said on an issue, without checking and reporting the truth of those statements, they turn the media into the Wikipedia, and we already have a very fine Wikipedia, thank you very much.
1The birthers have an interesting take on this. They want to engage in original research and verify facts personally, rather than relying on the press who traditionally had this role. I think that the rise of birtherism is a symptom of the deteriorating credibility of the press, due in part to their abdication of fact checking and truth reporting in favor of sound bytes and reporting controversy.
2There are, of course, exceptions to the rule. This is why I am so very appreciative of the work of FactCheck.org and Politifact.com. I appreciate good investigative journalism, such as when CNN went to Hawaii to expose Donald Trump’s clown show about Obama’s birth certificate.
Recently, the media have reported on Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s Cold Case Posse in Arizona and labeled the Posse’s results as long-discredited. I give them points for accuracy in labeling, but such labels carry little weight when a careful reading the media article shows that the label was not verified with any independent research nor referenced to competent authority.
I further think that the abdication of the media’s fact checking role has led to the unprecedented growth in attack ads and the dumbing down of recent political campaigns.