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Wikipedia:Controversial articles

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Articles about controversial events or issues, or disputed incidents can be challenging to edit in a neutral fashion. Are the individuals in this picture "rioters" or "protesters"?

Controversial articles, by their very nature, require far greater care to achieve a neutral point of view.

Describe the controversy[edit]

An article about a controversial person, issue, group or organization should start with facts: "According to the FBI, the XYZ faction had over 1,000 active members in 1982.[1]" Next, the article should accurately describe their views, no matter how misguided or repugnant. Where a person or organization has released published statements about their aims or objectives, these can be summarized for the reader: "According to the XYZ faction's 1983 manifesto, which was published in the New York Times, the three main aims of the faction were to..." If the organization's leader or its members have been convicted of crimes committed in the furtherance of the group's objectives, these legal outcomes can be summarized for the reader: "In 1984, members A, B and C of the XYZ faction were convicted of hijacking..."

Remember to ask the question, "How can this controversy best be described?" It is not our job to edit Wikipedia so that it reflects our own idiosyncratic views and then defend those edits against all comers; it is our job to be fair to all sides of a controversy. For a controversial individual or organization, it is likely that many sources have criticized the person or the group. A well-sourced summary of these criticisms should appear in the article, giving weight to the viewpoints in accordance to the weight that these viewpoints are given in reliable, published sources: "Several US organizations such as A, B and C criticized the XYZ faction for its..." If authoritative sources support the existence of positive viewpoints about the person or group, these too can be summarized for the reader: "The organizations P and Q endorsed the aims of the XYZ faction, and the political philosophers John Smith and Sue Jones defended their political arguments."

Please be clear that the Wikipedia neutrality policy certainly does not state, or imply, that we must "give equal validity" to minority views in a controversy. If the vast majority of political philosophers criticized the XYZ faction, and only two political philosophers supported the group's aims, then giving substantial coverage of these two philosopher's views could be viewed as undue weight.

Be precise[edit]

Keep all content within the scope defined by the article title. Important content that drifts outside of that limit should be moved to appropriate other articles and linked to or the current article should be retitled. The lead does not define the limits of the article; if the lead is more limiting than the title, add the content to the body and rewrite the lead to summarize the body more accurately.

Consider adding different kinds of content within the scope of the article, so that the subject as a whole is treated with greater accuracy, because more of the important parts of it will have been covered because of your editing. For example, in an article about schools in a nation, if only those in big cities are covered when others exist but are unmentioned, add about other schools in that nation, to make the article more comprehensive within its title.

Word closely to sourcing. Don't say the sky is blue if you can't find a source to back up the statement. Instead, delete the statement or rephrase it to what you can back up. Precision is vital. Quote, except that too many or too-long quotations are discouraged in Wikipedia (more are allowed in Wikiquote). The alternative to quoting is to paraphrase, so, when you paraphrase, do it very closely to the source, changing the wording without changing the meaning. Even if you understand the subject well enough to paraphrase not very closely because you know the meaning is the same, other editors don't and you may be accused of misrepresenting a source, so paraphrase closely or find a source closer to the paraphrase you favor.

Be careful with attribution[edit]

When writing an article on most topics in Wikipedia, simple declarations of fact and received opinion do not need to be sourced in the article; indeed, it would be prohibitive to force editors to provide a reliable source for every claim. However, a verifiable source does have to exist in the world, even if not cited in the article. (In this essay, attributions and citations are both discussed as attributions, although in Wikipedia attributions are like "according to Smith" in a sentence and citations are often bibliographic in a footnote.)

However, when dealing with potentially contentious topics, such as in the field of religion or current affairs, a lot more care has to be taken. The more at variance from commonly accepted notions an assertion is, the more rigorously it should be documented. Keep the following things in mind:

Be careful with weasel words[edit]

Weasel words are a way to give unconfirmable assertions the appearance of fact. "Houston is considered the friendliest city in the world." Really, now. Who says so? Do not use expressions like "is claimed", "is thought to be", and "is alleged", without saying specifically who is doing the claiming, thinking or alleging.

Also, beware of using words of attribution that cast aspersions on the source. This is largely an issue of context; for example,

Standing before the ruins of an exploded apartment building, the military spokesman claimed that "only military targets were hit".

Here, "claimed" suggests the writer's doubt; "said" would have been more neutral. Also, "alleged" often suggests a statement of questionable truth.

Attribute each sentence, not just a paragraph[edit]

When you write new content, make it perfectly clear if a footnote is meant to support the whole paragraph or only the last clause before the footnote. For example, start with a clear attribution like "Mr. Smith has written..." If this is not possible and there could be any confusion about the source, it is better to have the same material sourced more than once in the paragraph. Otherwise the subsequent editor either has to retrieve the source (which may be unavailable to that editor or slow to get) or only can estimate the previous editor's intention. While in such cases some may prefer sourcing every sentence, later editors may find this excessive, remove the extra references. Sentences (and sometimes paragraphs) may contain more than one source, as long as it is clear to future editors which source supports which statement in a sentence. See bundling citations for more information. Later editors who find that part of a paragraph is not properly sourced may put a "citation needed" tag on the questionable material.

Attribute facts[edit]

When establishing an event or action, reference should be made to a reliable source. Ideally, this would be a dependent scholarly work, but most of us don't have access to this kind of material. For most events since 1995, and some before, Web-based news reports can be cited to establish basic facts. These should be from the mainstream media or independent organizations, taking into account that they have their biases as well.

Attribute assertions[edit]

When characterizing a person, event, or action, an assertion should likewise be attributed to an acceptable source. A regular news story from a mainstream media organization is best, but don't rely on the journalist to report the bias of its sources accurately. Alternatively, a text from conservative or liberal alternative media may be cited, provided the source is accurately labeled in neutral terms and the label is sourceable. For example,

  • The conservative American churchgroup...
  • The liberal anti-war group...
  • The right-wing pro-Israel advocacy group...
  • The radical Islamic group...
  • The indigenous rebel movement...

Identify the possible bias of the source (including organizational, financial, and/or personal ties with interested parties). If the status of the source itself is disputed, it is best to avoid such characterizations altogether; instead, a link to an article on the source, where those conflicting viewpoints are discussed, should be used (if possible). (One example is the much-disputed distinction between a terrorist and a freedom fighter, but other disputes are certainly possible.) In the event that non-centrist points of view are presented, it is desirable to include assertions from multiple perspectives.

Raise source quality[edit]

A barely acceptable source is acceptable and can be cited, but try to find better (or the best) sourcing you can. The qualifications of the author (including whether the author's background is stated in the book itself), the reputation of the publisher for accuracy (such as a university press), and use of the work in training postgraduate students all indicate the quality or reliability of the source. Although both easy-to-verify and hard-to-verify sources are allowed, as long as both are at least minimally verifiable, when you have a choice the easy-to-verify source is preferred, and that usually means a source that can be read online and for free, provided that does not produce a source that's worse in other respects. If you must choose between an easily verifiable source that's barely reliable and a very reliable source that's barely verifiable, choose the more reliable source. If you can cite both, cite both (you can generally cite up to three for a point).

Editing procedures[edit]

If you are preparing to create an article that is likely to be severely challenged by many editors, put extra effort into complying with policies and guidelines (and those essays that have gained the most acceptance as modeling how we should edit). There are some editors with special roles who seem to have forgotten what the policies and guidelines say and you can't afford to be ignorant yourself, so you may have to take time to read more of them and more often, so you can find and quote whatever applies to a dispute. Not everything interesting can be added to Wikipedia but, if you edited within policies and guidelines, probably not everything you added should be deleted.

If you contribute to a controversial article then it can be handy to separate the non-controversial contributions from the controversial ones. First make the non-controversial edits and then the (suspected) controversial ones. If the controversial edit is reverted by another contributor then at least the non-controversial edits will be maintained. Although when you save an edit you can checkmark it as minor, try not to, except in the most minor cases, as doing so may make you look like you're trying to hide your work from other editors' watchlists (because some editors don't watchlist minor edits).

Expect to spend time responding to challenges and edits. Be sure the article is on your watchlist (if you exclude minor edits from your watchlist, set your preferences not to exclude them anymore) and check it at least a couple of times a week, because some procedures customarily allow you about a week to respond and some may require an almost immediate response from you. Make time to do more research, because often someone will say something that cannot be usefully answered without new research by you, and you may be surprised by what is challenged.

Be patient and don't chew people's heads off on the ground that if they don't use their brain they don't need it. Patience often means going an extra length to explain something that seems obvious. Assume good faith even on the part of annoying editors and be civil even when they're not. Some editors seem to provoke and you can wind up losing because of double standards. Even when provoked, answer on the substance as if they had always been civil.

If someone's editing is acceptable even though it's not great, leave it intact and don't risk becoming an article owner, which is not allowed. If editing is partly acceptable and partly not, only change what is not, even though selectivity is more complicated than reverting or undoing an entire edit. Craft a compromise that has a hope of satisfying all sides, even if the compromise is not your first choice. Make your Edit Summaries as clear as possible and avoid criticizing editors in them. Edit Summaries have to be short, so, if you run out of room in the Edit Summary field, expect to start a Talk topic in a few minutes and meanwhile use the Edit Summary to link to the Talk topic. Apply BRD by discussing disputes, whether you open the discussion or someone else does, which means you should check the article's talk page when it turns up in your watchlist. Allow consensus to develop then abide by the outcome even if it's not what you would like. An article consensus cannot override the consensus that applies to a policy or guideline and no one should apply an article consensus when that would require violating a policy or guideline, nor should a sham consensus be followed.

See also[edit]