On Tuesday, January 10, the always-controversial BuzzFeed newsdesk published a 35-page dossier on allegations that the “Russian government has been ‘cultivating, supporting and assisting’ President-elect Donald Trump for years.” According to the multiple reporters responsible for the story, the contents of the dossier details “specific, unverified, and potentially unverifiable allegations of contact between Trump aides and Russian operatives, and graphic claims of sexual acts documented by the Russians.” There is a key word in this statement: unverified. (This word shows up in the subheading, as well as reappearing just six words into the lede.) Since its publication, the story is “trending” and has over 4 million views (and counting) at the time of this writing.
Of course, being that it’s Buzzfeed, people rushed to read the story, to analyze and see what the dossier had to say about Donald Trump’s ties to Russia, a topic that’s been circulating since the business tycoon announced his run for the presidency. There are some defaming claims in the document, sure, but the most shocking — and rather grotesque — bit of information comes from one select paragraph that birthed the #goldenshowers hashtag.
— Alice Workman (@workmanalice) January 11, 2017
Yes, according to the “potentially unverifiable” document, the president-elect paid prostitutes to perform golden showers on each other in a bed the Obamas slept in while staying in Russia because he hated them. Everyone has their own fetishes, but this reaches a new level of resentment, akin to childlike revenge — no, worse than that, actually. While transparency is welcomed, publishing a story containing information that is “unverified and potentially unverifiable” calls Buzzfeed‘s ethics into question, as well as journalistic ethics as a whole for those new and already-established in the field. As reductive as this sounds, when a Twitter account is unverified, many assume that account is either false and unreliable. In an age where verified accounts equate to truth and clicks trump accuracy — hah, Trump — publishing a story that has no way of ever being verified only hurts the industry that is already deemed untrustworthy by the mass population.
As purported by a stats poll published in Gallup, as of 2016 “Americans’ Trust in the Mass Media” is down to 32 percent. To break it down a little further, Gallup looked at “Trust in Mass Media, by Age,” which showcased that those aged 18 to 49 have a 26 percent trust in the media and those aged 50 and older have a 38 percent trust in the media. All three of these numbers are down from 40 percent, 36 percent, and 45 percent just the year before respectively, which is alarming. BuzzFeed‘s editor-in-chief, Ben Smith, released a statement on the company’s decision to publish the uncorroborated document, later saying to Huffington Post‘s senior media reporter, Michael Calderone, that “they’re not going to participate in an attempt to divide the media against each other” and the company still stands “by the decision to publish a newsworthy document.”
— Ben Smith (@BuzzFeedBen) January 11, 2017
There are a myriad of opinions cropping up on the internet, but the one question still stands: If BuzzFeed is allowed to run uncertain, unproven information in its stories, though it has the resources to fact-check everything that passes through its multiple desks, what stops someone else from having to keep journalistic integrity? As a journalist, one of the responsibilities, as one may assume, is to fact-check everything to ensure factual accuracy and truth — and that’s just an assumption. Merriam-Webster‘s definition of journalism reads “writing characterized by a direct presentation of facts or description of events without an attempt at interpretation.” Call it a kind of stenography, but the main role of a journalist performing journalism is to present the unobfuscated facts of the situation. There’s a key word here: facts.
This divisive publication has presented both sides of the argument: some media pundits are for BuzzFeed‘s commitment to transparency, while others loathe BuzzFeed‘s negligence at presenting the facts and blatantly stating “there’s serious reason to doubt the allegations.” In truth, all that’s happening is the nascent normalization of fake news and false stories. This manifests an overt acceptance of publishing information simply because the reporter has it, with no need to double-, triple-, or even quadruple-check anything with anyone. Those who take their jobs seriously, who spend hours writing stories and trying to gather as much factual information as possible, are lumped in with the “dishonest media scum” Trump bellowed at his rallies. Reliable sources are immediately considered unreliable simply because of the overabundance of inaccurate information and Pizzagate. This one BuzzFeed story — of all the stories and listicles on the site — slowly erode the already-decaying credibility of journalists around the world, because when Americans read “unverified” they aren’t thinking BuzzFeed is misleading, they’re thinking media as a whole is misleading.
Dividing the journalist population isn’t a good idea, especially now when Trump will be inaugurated in less than 10 days and everyone needs to be scrupulously watching his — and his cabinets’ — every move. However, it is the responsibility of every journalist to hold everyone — politicians, businesses and business executives, other publications, etc. — accountable for their actions. If that means other journalists have to call into question the integrity of their contemporaries to ensure that the truth and nothing but the truth comes to light, then so be it. It’s time to show the American people that mass media can do its job — and do it well.
(How can something be both “specific” and “unverified” at the same time?)
[Featured Image by Charley Gallay/Getty Images for BuzzFeed]