Editorials, Opinion

The importance of reliable sources

A Wisconsin Supreme Court judge recently made headlines for editing her own Wikipedia page to remove links to news articles she considered critical of her, instead replacing some of the page’s content and citation links with her own judicial decisions.

On the off chance you are unfamiliar with it, Wikipedia is a “free encyclopedia” on the internet. Often the top search result for any given topic, Wikipedia offers webpages dedicated to virtually every subject under the sun as well as notable objects, events and people.

The thing about Wikipedia that makes it both a font of information and a potentially unreliable source is that almost any Wikipedia page can be edited by anyone. On the one hand, that means knew information can be added as needed, outdated information can be amended and incorrect information can be deleted. Wikipedia also highly recommends citing information, and footnote numbers will appear at the end of most lines, with the occasional “citation needed” for possibly questionable information that hasn’t been backed up.

On the other hand, it also allows for incidents like the aforementioned. In this case, Judge Rebecca Bradley created a Wikipedia account — with a username similar to her email address, which contains her full initials — so she could edit out unflattering information about herself. She edited out a section detailing op-eds she had written for the Marquette Tribune in 1992, which included comparing abortion to the Holocaust and homophobic rants as related to the AIDS crisis. Bradley also edited the section detailing how she had compared COVID-19 stay-at-home orders to Japanese internment camps, which she then replaced with a quote from her court decision and added that “The media misleadingly suggested” she had made the comparison.

We bring this incident to your attention not for the purpose of pointing out some judge somewhere did something wrong, but to highlight how careful we all must be when searching for information on the internet.

Wikipedia can be useful — and it does have some safeguards in place, such as asking for citations and “protecting” pages so they can only be edited by verified users — but it should never be used as a definitive source. Though it can be a good starting place for learning more. Throughout a wiki page will be footnotes, with a full reference section at the bottom. The titles and links contained there can lead you to other (more verifiable) sources.

Blogs and crowd-sourced websites (think Reddit or Quora) can be fun and interesting, but they shouldn’t be taken as expert resources. Some users will provide citations and references, which boosts their credibility, but you should still take their writings with a grain of salt until you can verify the information against trustworthy sources.

The internet is full of misinformation, so we have to be careful and cognizant about what we interact with and absorb.