The Dossier: A Lesson for Journalists Throughout the Trump Presidency

BuzzFeed’s decision to publish the Trump dossier in its entirety has raised quite the debate on journalists’ role in the digital era and the Trump administration. At a time when a skeptical president is chipping away at the credibility of news organizations, prioritizing accuracy over transparency and immediacy is most important. And only two short weeks later, the dossier, to my knowledge, is rarely mentioned in the news.

The ethics of publishing the dossier are questionable. In BuzzFeed’s original article, the dossier was described as “a collection of memos written over a period of months, includes specific, unverified, and potentially unverifiable allegations of contact between Trump aides and Russian operatives, and graphic claims of sexual acts documented by the Russians. BuzzFeed News reporters in the US and Europe have been investigating various alleged facts in the dossier but have not verified or falsified them.”

In a unusual move, BuzzFeed published a document with “unverified and potentially unverifiable allegations.” It is the usual expectation that news stories are verified and truthful. Accuracy is the business.

“Our presumption is to be transparent in our journalism and share what we have with our readers,” said BuzzFeed News editor in chief Ben Smith, in an email to staff.

In the article, Buzzfeed states that it decided to publish the dossier “so that Americans can make up their own minds about allegations about the president-elect that have circulated at the highest levels of the U.S. government.”

In a Washington Post blog written by The Fix’s Philip Bump, he refers to a New Republic article written by Lawrence Lessig, discussing the role of transparency in government.

“We are not thinking critically enough about where and when transparency works, and where and when it may lead to confusion, or to worse,” Lessig writes. “And I fear that the inevitable success of this movement – if pursued alone, without any sensitivity to the full complexity of the idea of perfect openness – will inspire not reform, but disgust.”

These concerns about transparency are not exclusive to government; they, by nature, can also be applied to the dossier discussion.

The dossier existed in the world of the political elite for months, and Ben Smith thought that his audience deserved to see it – an idea that isn’t radical.

But if news organizations and political elites are struggling to confirm the information in a 35-page dossier, it is hard to imagine that the average American will be able to discern the truth from it too.

Given this, transparency with unconfirmed information is irresponsible and seems typical of  a supermarket tabloid.

Tony Haile, CEO of the web analytics company Chartbeat, wrote an article for Time describing readership habits.

“In fact, a stunning 55 [percent] spent fewer than 15 seconds actively on a page,” Haile wrote. “The stats get a little better if you filter purely for article pages, but even then one in every three visitors spend less than 15 seconds reading articles they land on.”

Readers are barely making it to the end of the article, making it unlikely that readers will truly read the lengthy dossier. Further, it is unlikely that Americans have the tools and the capacity to responsibly decide if these allegations are true or not when most are not reading the full document or news about it.

The Internet has inspired a 24/7 news cycle. It, along with cell phones, has also inspired a movement of citizen journalism. BuzzFeed put the dossier online in light of this new era.

However, this has contributed to the splintered media environment Bump writes about.

“In the rush to compete in a splintered media environment, that process has often been curtailed, which is probably part of the reason why public confidence in the media has dipped,” he said. “Report one-too-many incorrect or unverifiable rumors and trust in the rest of your reporting will decline.

The current media environment also includes that lack of authority and credibility it yields. In a time where only 34 percent of Americans say they have a great deal of trust in the media, and “alternative facts” and fake news exist, accuracy is most important.

President Trump, throughout his campaign and into his presidency has perpetuated the narrative that the mainstream media is lying in order to discredit him. After CNN reported on the dossier he called them fake news.

Trump also immediately fired off a series of tweets in response to the dossier rejecting any possibility of its truth.

The president is an authoritative figure who is calling CNN and BuzzFeed fake news. Provided this, publishing a story and a dossier that only seem to be rumors are real fuel to a fire that Trump has been kindling for months. And because this information was unsubstantiated, it was easy for him to deny it all. His disregard for truth is confusing and concerning.

It is difficult to trust the media to determine what is newsworthy and what their audience deserves to know. Conversely, it is a great and challenging responsibility for news organizations to determine newsworthiness.

Given that, it is a mistake to publish rumors for the sake of mitigating the power and scope the media has as a gatekeeper. Nothing should be let out of the gate if it is unverified.

Now more than ever, it is crucial that stories are verified to a core to make it harder for the President to write off as fake news.

It is alarming that Russia could have incriminating information on Trump. It is equally alarming that since the dossier was published, there has been hardly any mention of it and the status of its verification.

Media and news organizations cannot give Trump open opportunities to dismiss truth and they need to certify everything with accuracy as a priority. This dossier needs to serve as a lesson for combating the new era of “alternative facts.”

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