Mention the word Wikipedia around most newsrooms, and you’re likely to get a look of disgust and a few rolled eyes. While the collaborative encyclopedia should not be the final destination or the end all and be all of information it does have its uses as a starting point for sources.
From Wikipedia’s entry on itself:
Wikipedia is a multilingual, web-based, free content encyclopedia project, operated by the Wikimedia Foundation, a non-profit organization. As of July 25, 2007, Wikipedia has approximately 7.9 million articles in 253 languages, 1.91 million of which are in the English edition. This makes it the world’s largest, most extensive, and fastest growing encyclopedia ever compiled. It has been written collaboratively by volunteers around the world and the vast majority of its articles can be edited by anyone with access to the Internet. Steadily rising in popularity since its inception, it currently ranks among the top ten most-visited websites worldwide.
Wikipedia’s users are often smart and lightning fast. The entry on Anna Nicole Smith announced her death hours before many news sites did. The Hurricane Katrina entry lists 119 sources (thanks Brady). The site also includes specialized entries not seen in any regular encyclopedia, including my favorites Capoeira in popular culture, songs about California and the now non-existent “Competing films with similar plots” (it was removed because it was biased and unverifiable).
Despite its strengths, Wikipedia does have its very well-known weaknesses. Anyone is allowed to edit the entries, though many are corrected eventually by millions of users with a keen eye. A red flag should be any entry with a shaded box with the warning “This article does not cite any references or sources.” These are more likely to appear in less popular, theoretical or highly debated entries.