Brandon Ambrosino is a freelance writer in Delaware, who has written for The New York Times, Boston Globe, BBC, and The Economist.
Buzzfeed’s decision to print a 35-page dossier outlining egregious allegations about president-elect Donald Trump has certainly stirred much debate. The report is allegedly compiled by an anonymous person claiming to be a former British Intelligence official.
Among the claims – that the Associated Press says it has not authenticated – the dossier states there was close co-ordination between Mr. Trump’s inner circle and Russians about hacking into Democratic accounts, as well as unproven claims about sexual activities of Mr. Trump, among other suggestions attributed to anonymous sources.
As The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan wrote, government officials and journalists have known about this for months, but because they couldn’t verify the allegations, they sat on it. On Tuesday, CNN reported that the dossier exists, but said it wouldn’t release details because “it has not independently corroborated the specific allegations.”
Buzzfeed presumably saw this as a green light to publish the entire dossier. To be sure, the writeup, which had three bylines, said that Buzzfeed couldn’t verify the allegations. But more to the point, Buzzfeed said it hadn’t been able to falsify them. The publication was making the information available “so that Americans can make up their own minds about allegations about the president-elect.”
It isn’t odd to hear a media type use those words, but it is curious to hear them use those words in that way. What a journalist typically means by “Let the public decide” is something like, “We will present all the facts at play in this story and let readers draw their own conclusions.”
What we do not mean and what we should not mean is, “We will present a few words to readers and let them decide if the words are true and factual.” One reason is because, without the same resources many journalists enjoy, the general reader isn’t capable of fact-checking all of our scoops, especially big political ones.
This is the point Erik Wemple was comically getting at when he joked that for Americans to “make up their minds” about this particular story would require them to “build their own intelligence agencies, with a heavy concentration of operatives in Eastern Europe.”
In an e-mail to staff, Ben Smith, Buzzfeed’s editor-in-chief defended the decision. “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.” But as Ms. Sullivan notes, the general rule for journalism is actually to err on the side of not publishing.
I’ve been trying to understand a reason why Buzzfeed would break almost every journalistic standard to publish this story. Then it hit me: In the new digital media landscape, sites such as Buzzfeed don’t see their primary job as writing ethical stories, but as producing content. In publishing this rumour, Buzzfeed did its job.
If the standard for traditional journalism was to ask, “Is this verified?,” the standard for new digital publications like Buzzfeed is to ask, “Is this clickworthy?” The answer to that second question for everything Buzzfeed produces is, “Yass!”
Mr. Smith went on to say that publishing these unverified allegations “reflects how [Buzzfeed sees] the job of reporters in 2017.” But that’s not how many reporters at other organizations see their job. And it’s time readers and politicians started acknowledging this difference.
Mr. Trump and his supporters have a habit of referring to the media as some kind of monolithic monster out to get him. But the fact that only a few reporters decided to print these rumours in their entirety proves just the opposite: that the vast majority of American publications – even ones Mr. Trump usually dislikes! – aren’t out to get him, but that they’re simply out to tell the truth, when they can verify it.
Sometimes Mr. Trump will find that truth flattering; sometimes he won’t.
Mr. Smith’s decision to stand by the rumours Buzzfeed published prove that it’s time for a new conversation about fake news. This one needs to include a good hard look at the distinction between journalism and content.Report Typo/Error
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