It was 2005. We’ve just gotten serious staff for the first time. The writer was a fresh faced woman from Texas, who, by the way, possessed serious brains and a dangerous wit. She answers me confidently.
“The open source online encyclopedia?,” I asked. Wikipedia was only four years old and notoriously inaccurate. I wanted sources as close to the information as we could get.
“Yes.” She didn’t deny it. If fact, she went on to excitedly extol its virtues. When I realized she was actually starting to sell me, I stopped her.
“I need you to cite the sources. I’m not asking for footnotes, just mention who they are.”
She looked at me. The unvoiced question: Really?
“And while you’re at it, read all the articles that are part of your basis so you know that they are referenced correctly in Wikipedia.”
“Peter, can I ask you why?”
“Sure. Because Wikipedia isn’t seen as a reliable source,” I said. “I think that professional people will want to tie the information back to a specific source.”
Her face flickered an annoyed WTF? before a slightly forced smile appeared. To her credit, Kate kicked ass. She researched all the sources, finding one was incorrect, while doing some additional deep digging. The final report was excellent.
Having the best possible sources of information builds trust in a document. To me, Wikipedia references just look like the writer took the lazy way out. In my heart of hearts, I believed that serious writers and readers would feel the same way. Until today.
Imagine my surprise when, while reading the order unsealing the 2005 Bill Cosby depositions, I read this reference in a footnote:
12 See, e.g., Pound Cake Speech, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pound_Cake_speech (last visited July 6, 2015);
The order was written by the Honorable Eduardo C. Robreno, United States District Court Judge for The Eastern District of Pennsylvania. This particular reference is key in Judge Robreno’s reasoning of how Cosby’s post 2005 deposition behavior diminished his individual privacy rights, an important element in the chain of logic he used to decide to release the complete deposition record to the public.
I had to read the footnote several times before I realized what bothered me. Then it hit me.
Judge Robreno just codified Wikipedia as a legitimate, reliable, source of case fact.
This is despite other more reliable sources including reports from actual witnesses. You can find them in the Wikipedia subject’s footnotes and read them directly. You could also check them and quote them directly. It’s just one more step. A small, but very important, step that builds the credibility of the author and gives the serious reader a way to confirm what is said with the best information.
Isn’t that something you’d want to do in a ruling that will release a mountain of embarrassing and troublesome information into the public domain? Is our legal system now practicing something I wouldn’t let my own team do? Isn’t citing Wikipedia, a publically edited encyclopedia, which is simply compiling and repeating sources, sort of like hearsay?
If Kate reads this, I know what her expression will be. I don’t even need to be there.
See, I told you.