21 December 2013

Don’t believe everything you read
in newspapers … or on Wikipedia

A beautiful photograph … but can you always believe what the caption says? (Photograph: Trevor Rickard)

Patrick Comerford

When I was growing up in families that were very familiar with newspapers and publishing, there were two sayings about veracity that still return to my mind every now and then:

“Don’t believe everything you read in a newspaper.”


“The camera never lies.”

Now of course that photo-shopping has become a common tool for newspapers, advertisers and modeling agencies, it is difficult to know whether the camera ever tlls the truth.

And the phone-hacking scandals in the British press make me wonder whether we can ever trust where the newspapers got their stories even when we can believe what we read in a newspaper.

Checking sources, and double-checking sources, are two important ethical principles for journalists and for academics.

Maybe I’m old-fashioned. But I prefer footnotes on essays, dissertations and books still directed me to a printed source and not to an online source. In part, it’s because I can have the printed source in my hand and check it myself with my own eyes, and in part it’s because I cannot always access the online source: I still do not have a kindle, and I don’t always have access to online libraries and journals.

Partly it’s because I know how easy it is to change the online versions of anything, so that what you read yesterday is not what I read today – I constantly change spelling mistakes when I find them on my own blog essays. And partly because I have found, from experience, time-and-time again, that scanning does not always provide an accurate online version of an out-of-print book.

But then, I also prefer other writers, authors and students would use libraries. Searching online for something you want seems to me to parallel proof-texting. But walking into a library and searching on open shelves under a subject topic for books can open my mind to many other unexpected and joyful ideas and discoveries.

But it is also because I am aware that the editing and peer-reviewing standards are not the same online as they are for printed works. Journal papers and books have long shelf-lives; web papers, blog postings and entries on Wikipedia can be changed from day to day, hour to hour, or even without a moment’s notice. I can trust that theological and historical papers, chapters and essays in books and journals are reviewed by people I trust, by and large. But how do I know who is editing or altering a page on Wikipedia, and what whim or personal bias has driven them to do this?

I am like most academics, I am sure, when I say I do not accept footnotes and references that cite Wikipedia. How can I possibly check their authenticity or veracity?

A good example of what drives me to say this is provided by a caption on a photograph I stumbled across on Wikipedia this afternoon as I began to prepare a paper on the Cathedral Close in Lichfield I have been invited to present in Lichfield next May.

The photograph taken by Trevor Rickard on 21 November, 2009 is beautiful, and originally appeared on www.geograph.org.uk. The caption on both sites is the problem. It describes the seven figures carved in Roman cement above the south door of Lichfield Cathedral as having Christ in the centre, with, on the right are Saint Chad, Saint James and Saint John the Baptist, and on the left Saint Peter, Saint John and the Virgin Mary.

The caption reads: The South Door of Lichfield Cathedral. Above the ornate doorway stand seven figures carved in Roman cement. Christ stands in the centre. On the right are Saint Chad, Saint James and John the Baptist. On the left are Saint Peter, Saint John and the Virgin Mary.

In fact, the seven figures are named in the plinths on which they stand. They are seven Patristic Writers or Seven Fathers of the Church: Saint Augustine, Saint Jerome, Saint Ambrose, Saint Gregory, Saint John Chrysostom, Saint Athanasius and Saint Basil.

This is one of the modern representations of a Pope in modern statuary on a Church of England cathedral. But in the days between the Third and Fourth Sunday of Lent, when we recalled the Virgin Mary last Sunday and Saint John the Baptist tomorrow, it is a pity to have them replaced by Saint Athanasius and Saint Ambrose; on the site of the very see he founded, it is a pity that Saint Chad, who is commemorated in other images in the cathedral, is mistaken for Saint Augustine; and at Christmas, or at any other time, I am sure Pope Gregory the Great would not have liked to be mistaken for Christ himself.

Someone needs to learn the ABCs of Church Saints, Church History and Patristics.

In the meantime, the moral of the story is that you should not believe everything you read in the newspapers – or on Wikipedia, and that the camera can lie, especially when a photograph has a caption written by someone without appropriate knowledge.

Seven Fathers of the Church above the South Porch of Lichfield Cathedral: Saint Augustine, Saint Jerome, Saint Ambrose, Saint Gregory, Saint John Chrysostom, Saint Athanasius and Saint Basil (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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