Or the web’s greatest first stop research tool.
As proper, serious journalists, we’re not supposed to use Wikipedia. Because it can be edited by anybody, the content can be inaccurate. Sometimes this is a mistake, sometimes this is due to a wag thinking it would be funny to say that Vin Diesel is slated to play Falklands burns victim Simon Weston in a new big budget Hollywood biopic.
Well guess what? Other encyclopedias can be inaccurate too – particularly ones that have been left gathering dust on the shelf for years. And as a resource for writers, Wikipedia is a brilliant starting point.
It may not cover the subject in enough detail, and you do have to be wary of the accuracy, but to get a brief overview of a particular topic, person, place or event, Wikipedia is fantastic. I’ll get frowned upon for saying this, but as long as you double-check any information you glean from it, there is absolutely nothing wrong with using it as an information source.
In fact, it can be both enlightening and a time-saver, while the references used to support the information are usually useful further steps along the research path.
A cautionary note
One quick story for anyone thinking of taking Wikipedia entries as gospel, however. A while back, I cheated and took a (very minor) factoid straight from Wikipedia, figuring that it was a corner that would be OK to cut.
A few months later, I came back to the same Wikipedia entry and found the very article I wrote quoted as a reference...