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Scribner’s Error: Wikipedia — Good start but bad finish

By GREGORY FROOM, Managing Editor

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Same as when you’re writing your child’s term paper, don’t cite to Wikipedia when you’re trying to establish a negligence case.

That was the word earlier this month from the N.C. Court of Appeals in a footnote to the decision in Harris v. Barefoot (Lawyers Weekly No. 10-07-0741, 8 pp.).

The case involved a Harnett County mail carrier who was bitten by dogs (how original that fact pattern is). In an attempt to establish that one of the dogs that bit her – an Australian heeler/border collie mix – had the requisite propensity for viciousness, the plaintiff pointed to a Wikipedia article about the breed. The article said that the mix is generally known to be aggressive.

The panel was unmoved by that authority.

In what was apparently the appeals court’s first pronouncement about the reliability of the venerable online encyclopedia, the judges said it didn’t carry much weight.

In the footnote, the court said that a “review of the Wikipedia website reveals a pervasive and, for our purposes, disturbing series of disclaimers.” Of particular concern to the judges was the fact that Wikipedia articles “may be, at any given moment, in a bad state: for example, it could be in the middle of a large edit or it could have been recently vandalized.”

The panel also cited disclaimers regarding the incompleteness and bias of many Wikipedia entries.

I’m sure that it didn’t take an appellate court pronouncement for most practitioners to realize that the best source isn’t an online encyclopedia that is open to user edits.

This would be a good time for me to acknowledge that Wikipedia apologists maintain that the site is generally reliable precisely because it is open to review and correction. I’ll leave that debate alone.

All of this does raise the question of what is a reliable source. That’s an issue that we grapple with all of the time in the journalism biz, and it’s one that lawyers must consider, too.

One of my colleagues said that one of the main reasons she quit practicing law is because she couldn’t tell when a client was lying to her. That’s a problem.

Reporters also have to develop their intuitions as human polygraph machines when talking to sources. Just like lawyers, even the pros get duped sometimes.

On a less intuitive and more intellectual level is the matter of sorting out what written sources deserve credence. Always a difficult task, it has become even more so with the exponential proliferation of words on the Internet.

Folks from the old school are leery of anything in an electronic format on the theory that paper documents should be more reliable because someone has made the effort to commit words to paper – and hopefully did some fact-checking beforehand.

The problem with Internet research isn’t so much an issue of quality, but rather quantity. There’s just so much stuff out there, and you’ve got to have a solid method for separating wheat from chaff.

When used with caution, Wikipedia can actually be a good place to start that process. I confess that I frequently turn to the site in both my personal and professional life when I want to find out about something I’m not familiar with, like an Australian heeler.

But Wikipedia can’t be the final word. Rather, it’s an entry point for finding primary sources.

If it’s something I want to be sure about, I turn to the links at the bottom of the article or I run a Google search. If I have only a passing interest in the subject, Wikipedia will suffice.

Just for kicks, I looked up the Wikipedia entries on the three Court of Appeals judges who were so disapproving in Harris v. Barefoot. Each had an article that consisted of a few paragraphs, and they all included external links to the judges’ biographies on the N.C. Court of Appeals site.

I hope that is a trustworthy source because that’s where I first read the Harris opinion.



Speaking of things on the Internet, I initially wrote about this topic on Lawyers Weekly’s new blog, Oyez!, which you can find on our revamped website at Check it out.





Editor’s note: Froom is ­managing editor of North Carolina Lawyers Weekly. He graduated from the UNC School of Law in 2001. He holds an N.C. law license and is a member of the 10th Judicial District Bar.

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