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VCU researchers’ study finds major U.S. newspapers are warming up to Wikipedia

Online encyclopedia referenced more positively, cited more often in stories

Major newspapers in the United States are referencing Wikipedia more often and framing the online encyclopedia more positively in stories, according to a study by a pair of faculty researchers in the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Mass Communications.

In the study, published in the April issue of “Journalism Practice,” researchers analyzed the framing of Wikipedia and its use as a news source by five U.S. national newspapers over an eight-year period. A content analysis of 1,486 Wikipedia references in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today and The Christian Science Monitor found that Wikipedia is predominantly framed neutrally or positively in stories and that it is increasingly used as a news source.

“The main finding of this study is the notion that journalists do not use Wikipedia is debunked,” said Marcus Messner, Ph.D., assistant professor of mass communications. “Wikipedia is used by journalists in news stories on a regular basis and it is not considered a negative.”

The researchers said their study found the journalists’ acceptance and use of Wikipedia developed over time.

“Early stories debunked Wikipedia, throwing cold water on Wikipedia as an accurate source of information. And in 2004 and 2005, a number of media reported on Wikipedia hoaxes,” said Jeff South, associate professor of mass communications. “But over time, negative references faded into the background and the number of references sourcing Wikipedia became more prominent.”

The researchers said by framing Wikipedia as credible and accurate, the newspapers help legitimize the use of the online encyclopedia. By allowing Wikipedia to influence their news agendas as a source, the newspapers confirm the growing reliability of Wikipedia.

EDITOR’S NOTE: A copy of the study is available for reporters by email request to mmessner@vcu.edu.

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Virginia Commonwealth University is a major, urban public research university with national and international rankings in sponsored research. Located in downtown Richmond, VCU enrolls more than 31,000 students in 226 degree and certificate programs in the arts, sciences and humanities. Sixty-seven of the programs are unique in Virginia, many of them crossing the disciplines of VCU’s 13 schools and one college. MCV Hospitals and the health sciences schools of Virginia Commonwealth University comprise VCU Medical Center, one of the nation’s leading academic medical centers. For more, see www.vcu.edu.

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