The BuzzFeed Dossier: Transparency Journalism or “Fake News”?

Since the dawn of the 2016 election, “fake news” seems to be all of the buzz in the journalistic community.  The overarching term first appeared to be coined by liberal political pundits attributing Clinton’s loss to a series of Trump-aligned fake stories circulating social media. On the other hand, conservative commentators have appropriated the term to describe liberal news networks.

Recently, however, President Donald Trump – as well as others in media and politics – have used the term to push back against the publication of a controversial and unverified dossier about Trump.

CNN published the news that President Obama and then-President-elect Trump were briefed by intelligence officials about the existence of the dossier, but did not publish the contents because they could not verify the graphic claims within.

BuzzFeed reported the actual, unverified contents of the dossier, noting that media outlets had the information for months and thus the public should know about its content.

In response to backlash against their release of the document BuzzFeed responded, noting that, in their opinion, prioritizing transparency and open access to information is more important than fine-tuning reporting for accuracy. “We have always erred on the side of publishing,” BuzzFeed’s editor-in-chief Ben Smith tweets. “Publishing this document was not an easy or simple call, and people of goodwill may disagree with our choice. But publishing the dossier reflects how we see the job of reporters in 2017.”

In the wake of the controversy, the media became even more divided over whether BuzzFeed was right to publish, if the President was right on attacking news organizations, whether or not the dossier actually constitutes “fake news,” and finally, what principle in journalistic practice is more important: transparency or accuracy.

CNN op-ed contributor Timothy Stanley believes that Trump “nailed” his first press conference, in which Trump called CNN “fake news” and BuzzFeed “failing.” Stanley noted that while calling out the press is uncalled for, past presidents like Obama and Nixon did the same in their tenure. In bringing up examples of past presidents who have criticized the media, Stanley attempts to normalize Trump’s words as well.

Conservative magazine The Weekly Standard points out the ideological double standards behind the fake news phenomenon. “Conservatives suddenly started finding “fake news’ incidents of their own in which liberals had fallen for rumors unsupported by any direct evidence,” reporter Charlotte Allen writes. “Even worse – for liberals, that is – conservatives started accusing the mainstream media themselves of disseminating fake news for their own political purposes.” Allen believes that Trump’s comments are an extension of increasing public distrust of the mainstream media.

David A. Graham, staff writer for The Atlantic, disagrees with Smith’s reasoning. “The reporter’s job is not to simply dump as much information as possible into the public domain,” Graham critiques. “It is to gather information, sift through it, and determine what is not. The point of a professional journalist corps is to have people whose job it is to do that work on behalf of society, and who can cultivate sources and expertise to help them adjudicate it.”

In an interview with Smith, NBC’s Chuck Todd is critical of BuzzFeed’s decision to publish the dossier. “I know this was not your intent,” says Todd, “but you have just published fake news.”

On the other hand, other outlets have praised BuzzFeed’s publication of these sensitive documents and would have preferred for the news organization to act sooner.

Politico media columnist Jack Shafer defended BuzzFeed’s decision to publish the sensitive documents, going as far as saying he would publish the dossier himself if in a similar position: “When such a report is flung about by people in power, as this one was, and its allegations are beginning to inform governance, more damage is done to trust in government and confidence in journalism by withholding it from public scrutiny.”

Shafer also points out that “impartial journalism” is long dead. “Conventional journalists no longer have the capacity to gate-keep in a perfect way,” he writes. “Complaining about it is pointless.”

Writing for the liberal blog Daily Kos, Egberto Willies applauds BuzzFeed’s decision to release the documents and would have preferred if BuzzFeed would have acted sooner, commenting that “Trump’s irrational love for Vladimir Putin and his inability to accept that Russia was destabilizing our election justifies the publication of the dossier.”

Tom Scocca, deputy executive editor of digital investigations for Gizmodo Media Group, agrees with BuzzFeed’s decision to publish. Scocca argues that the publication of these documents nets positive because the “untouchable story has become a matter of open discussion, whether the ultimate scandal turns out to be about Trump’s alleged conduct, his relations with Russia, his feud with the intelligence services or some combination of all of those.”

Scocca emphasizes that “good journalism” is not simply publishing what a reporter knows to be true; rather, it is adding relevant information to the general public’s discourse about the President and asking the public – rather than the journalists or political pundits –to make up their mind with what they are presented with.

In a world of increasing access to sensitive government documents and events coupled with the decreasing accountability, gate-keeping, and qualifications of the people choosing to consume and report said sensitive material, what journalism ought to be in the 21st century should be the question in the forefront of all our minds. BuzzFeed’s release of the dossier has certainly generated discourse but has arguably undermined what most credible individuals in the profession consider to be good journalism. Going forward into a Trump administration, it will be interesting to see how journalistic ethics and practices evolve and what role fake news will play in the minds of the American public, if any.

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