BuzzFeed’s publication of Trump report violated journalistic ethics

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Let’s say you’re an editor of a widely read online publication like BuzzFeed. Above all else, it’s your job to ultimately decide what qualifies as corroborated and verified in terms of what stories get published and what stories — particularly important ones regarding an incoming president — don’t.

{mosads}Exhibit A today is BuzzFeed’s decision to do what every other publication was arguably wise enough not to do: publish in full a two-page dossier on President-elect Donald Trump that was based on uncorroborated, unverified work via third-party intelligence. 

The editor’s name at BuzzFeed is Ben Smith. Is he objective and unbiased? That doesn’t appear to be the case.

Smith has made it quite clear, on dozens of occasions, that he isn’t a fan of Trump, even going so far to instruct his staff to refer to him as a “mendacious racist” and “liar,” if they so choose.

No such memo, of course, was sent out by Smith regarding the use of “liar” as it pertained to Hillary Clinton, despite her having higher untrustworthy numbers than Trump.

Back to the Trump dossier, Smith sent an internal memo on Tuesday where the editor explained — and this is critical to anyone who cares about the very basics of journalism ethics — that while “there is serious reason to doubt the allegations,” he also said “that Americans can make up their own minds” if the story is true or not.

The BuzzFeed story itself even notes that the “allegations are unverified, and the report contains errors.”   

Wall Street Journal alum Heidi Moore sums the report up thusly:

CNN’s Jake Tapper also stated Wednesday that it was “irresponsible” for the dossier to be printed in full.

So if you’re an editor who freely admits serious doubt around the Trump allegations and sees the words “unverified” and “errors” as it applies to the report, here are the simple questions:

Why publish it before verifying anything? 

Why print anything that contains multiple errors, including one very big one that Michael Cohen, who serves as special counsel to Trump, has never even been to Prague, as was stated in the report. 

Cohen says he can prove it, and CNN is reporting a government source tells them the same thing:

The simplistic answer here is that ethics got trumped by an obsession with clicks — and the ad revenue that goes along with them — once again. Why be accurate when you can be first? And given how this story is dominating the news cycle, BuzzFeed is certainly getting insane traffic out of this decision.

But when looking at this from another angle, there’s been ample criticism from the left toward the media that damaging reports on Trump are being suppressed, so perhaps that’s part of BuzzFeed’s impetus here.

Perhaps Smith believes there was value in getting this story out in full — warts and non-verification and all — so the public can see it.

And perhaps Smith is arguing that journalists — who admit they’d heard about these allegations in the summer and fall before the election but held back — shouldn’t have sole power in being gatekeepers.

“Publishing this dossier reflects how we see the job of reporters in 2017,” also wrote Smith in the memo to staff.

Fair questions to ask: Has that job changed because of the person who is about to take office? Why do the rules suddenly change this year?

The Hill has reached out to Smith for comment to get more of his perspective outside of the aforementioned memo.

Either way, the BuzzFeed decision is being met by criticism from the right and left, including Glenn Greenwald, the Intercept journalist who famously worked with Edward Snowden.

And Greenwald, who is no Trump fan, is 110 percent correct on every point here. 

While some may use BuzzFeed’s decision as another argument against “dishonest media” (to quote Trump) as a whole, keep this in mind:

Most of said media didn’t rush to publish this dossier despite the perception it always posts everything it has. There has been impressive restraint on this one, fromThe New York Times to The Washington Post to The Hill to all the broadcast and cable news networks. Let’s give credit where credit is due.

Ultimately, BuzzFeed says it wants readers to decide for themselves. 

But putting forth that choice based on a report devoid of sourcing, details, verification or corroboration while littered with errors isn’t a fair choice. 

Joe Concha is a media reporter for The Hill.

The views expressed by Contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

Tags BuzzFeed Donald Trump Donald Trump Hillary Clinton Joe Concha Russia

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