BuzzFeed’s decision to publish a 35-page intelligence dossier about Donald Trump’s dealings in Russia set off a firestorm on Twitter that many of us wish we could un-see and also started a hearty debate over what journalism should look like in 2017.
From the start, BuzzFeed did inform readers that the information they were presenting was not verified. BuzzFeed’s editor-in-chief Ben Smith defended the decision to publish the report by claiming that it was an act of transparency.
“Our presumption is to be transparent in our journalism and to share what we have with our readers. We have always erred on the side of publishing.” -Ben Smith
The obvious problem here is that this puts BuzzFeed’s philosophy of publication in direct contrast to most reputable news organizations. The overwhelming majority of publishers and news producers would never run a story based on unverified information. Historically, news publishers have chosen to err on the side of accuracy and risk losing the big story rather than to publish based on unconfirmed rumor and innuendo.
It isn’t transparent, either. Transparency reveals how the news-gathering process works. It is often done after-the-fact by showing the reader how the finished story came together. There was no process here. The only thing transparent about this document dump was that it shed light on the fact that BuzzFeed wasn’t willing to do the difficult work of reporting and finding the facts in the story. Incidentally, the hard work of reporting and finding facts is what most of us would call “Journalism.” If you want to be transparent, tell us who you contacted to verify the information and how many times your reporters attempted unsuccessfully to get in touch with them. Don’t just toss a bunch of information out there, shrug and say, “I don’t know if it’s accurate, but this is what someone sent us. It might not be at all true, but you’ll be entertained, and Twitter’s gonna love it.”
Also, to say you always err on the side of publishing is just silly and amateur. Now, BuzzFeed is relatively new — they were founded in 2006 — so if the organization was a human being it wouldn’t even have gone through puberty yet. But, institutions of journalism who have been around far longer than BuzzFeed can certainly chuckle at the idea of erring on the side of publishing and say “been there, won’t do it again.”
Dewey Defeats Truman is the classic example, but there have been other times when news organizations have pushed out raw data as fast as they could get their hands on it. I seem to recall an election at the turn of the century where Florida was called a few days earlier than it should have been based on exit polls and not actual vote counts. Most reporters have had the gut-wrenching experience of going to press or air with a questionable detail that later turned out to be false and had to be walked back. It isn’t a mistake we would willingly go out there and make.
See, most news organizations err on the side of publishing by mistake not by newsroom philosophy. In fact, we’d rather err on the side of accuracy because then we don’t actually err, and not erring in the first place is the only way to rebuild trust in journalism.
But, what BuzzFeed did wasn’t exactly journalism. It was click-bait, which is how BuzzFeed started and we should always remember that they have their roots in entertainment and not in journalism.
Ben Smith also asserts that publishing the report is part of BuzzFeed’s vision of what reporters’ jobs should look like in 2017. I don’t really know what he means by that, since there wasn’t really any reporting done, but let’s look at one of the core principles of being a reporter and that is questioning and at times taking on the powerful.
It is the job of journalists, whether it is in 2017 or 1917, to question and sometimes take on those in power, but over the years journalists have learned a few things about that. Primarily, we’ve learned that it isn’t wise to take on the powerful unless you are absolutely certain that your information is true. You don’t battle the powerful with rumor, conjecture and innuendo. All that happens when you do that is, you lose ethos and influence and the powerful people you were taking on become more powerful and less accountable.
One last thought about this concept of erring on the side of publishing: how is that any different than gossip? Isn’t gossip just a bunch of people getting together and running off at the mouth about the latest unfounded rumors without any attempt to verify information?
BuzzFeed can do better and the public deserves better.