Students in MEJO 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the first of those posts. Luke Bollinger is a junior majoring in journalism and political science at UNC-Chapel Hill. He enjoys reporting for The Daily Tar Heel and all things “Game of Thrones.”
BuzzFeed’s decision to publish a dossier containing unverified information should cause journalists, especially editors, to contemplate the importance of sound news judgment when fake news is rampant and trust in the media is dishearteningly low.
The dossier contains uncorroborated information that Russia has damaging information on newly elected President Donald Trump. The dossier had been circulating among government officials. News outlets reported on the documents but did not disclose the specific details.
BuzzFeed’s decision to publish the full dossier instantly ignited a debate of whether they should have published the documents.
The question of whether BuzzFeed should have published the document, despite knowledge of its potential falsity (this sounds a bit like actual malice) is a question of news judgment and how it should be exercised.
BuzzFeed stated that the “allegations are unverified, and the report contains errors.” And the story does hold practically every news value editors consider when deciding what to publish: impact, magnitude, conflict, timeliness, proximity and emotional impact.
Yet, this looks like fake news.
The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics says: “Take responsibility for the accuracy of their work. Verify information before releasing it.”
It is not reporting if a journalist simply regurgitates information; there needs to be a process of verification.
This is not the fake news grounded in imagination that normally plagues Facebook and Twitter, but it has similar effects. Fake news sensationalizes, and BuzzFeed has done the same by publishing the dossier.
The story has been sensationalized; BuzzFeed has put itself at the center of attention and some of the more perverse contents of the dossier have been turned into internet memes.
There is definitely cause to report on the dossier circulating among senators and top intelligence officials. The dossier is concerning; the possibility that a foreign power has compromising information on President Trump is frightening. This needs to be reported on, but this is where exercising cautious news judgment is critical when considering the prevalence of fake news.
The BuzzFeed article said the reasoning for publishing the dossier was “so that Americans can make up their own minds about allegations about the president-elect that have circulated at the highest levels of the US government.”
Presenting the people with the information and letting them make their own conclusions is something journalists should work toward every day, but not to the extent that a journalist no longer practices accurate reporting.
Fake news is a huge problem, a problem that diminishes the value of accurate information and jeopardizes the effectiveness of journalists that actively seek to provide the truth. BuzzFeed should have considered how publishing the dossier would work against journalists who verify their information.
Many journalists took offense. Columnists and commentators scolded BuzzFeed Editor-In-Chief Ben Smith for his decision and news judgment while CNN released a statement distancing itself from BuzzFeed.
The next four years will most likely hold plenty of controversy. Situations such as the dossier complicate editorial decisions when you have the responsibility of keeping an audience as informed as possible, as well as the responsibility of seeking the truth. In the era of fake news, finding a balance should rely more on truth. Not the possibility of truth.