Thursday, January 12, 2017

Buzzfeed, the Decline of Journalism, and the Rise of Fake-alism

Once upon a time, journalism involved gathering as much information related to some current event as possible. Journalists interviewed people who had firsthand knowledge. Finding and connecting with those sources of information was usually tedious and time-consuming. In many cases, people who had information were not cooperative or forthcoming.
Good journalists also reviewed as much information related to a story as they could get their hands on. Sources of information could include court documents and related articles that had been written previously. Once a journalist had all the information together, he or she would boil it down to the essentials that consumers would need to comprehend what was going on.

Ethical journalists felt a sense of responsibility to get more than one side of a story before putting it into circulation. At the same time, they frequently had deadlines to complete what they were working on. They couldn’t always review all the information that was available or talk to all the people involved by the time the deadline hit. In order to avoid getting fired, journalists would put together their articles and stories from the materials they had been able to gather within the allotted time. 
In addition to deadline pressures, journalists normally wanted to be the first to get a news story on the record. Being first is frequently referred to as “getting a scoop.” Getting scoops is one of the ways journalists built their careers. If newspaper A could get a hot story out a day before newspaper B, newspaper A would generally be regarded as superior. That is, unless they had rushed things, cut corners, and published information that was not correct.
Things have changed. It’s no longer necessary to interview people, to gather lots of information from lots of places, or to verify information. In a pinch, one source will do just fine, especially if it aligns with the biases and beliefs of a reporter or his or her organization. Writing, rewriting, fact-checking, verifying, rewriting, and editing aren’t necessary either. All that old-fashioned stuff is just a big waste of time which could keep an organization from getting a “story” out first.
Regurgitating a document, or a dossier, is much more efficient. Buzzfeed's publication of erroneous and unverified documents without providing context was not journalism. CNN was irresponsible when they passed the bogus story along. The era of fake-alism is upon us. Ironically, the news organizations that engage in it stand to lose their credibility through it. 
Buzzfeed’s Disclaimer
“A dossier, compiled by a person who has claimed to be a former British intelligence official, alleges Russia has compromising information on Trump. The allegations are unverified, and the report contains errors.”
It appears that two reporters, Ken Bensinger and Miriam Elder, worked on the dossier post along with editor Mark Schoofs. 
How many Buzzfeed employees does it take to write a disclaimer? My guess, and this is pure speculation, is that an article may have been in the planning stages, but the folks at Buzzfeed knew it would be difficult and time-consuming to produce. Maybe they had a feeling that it wouldn't pan out because they knew they were dealing with an operator. However, the story was also too juicy and too perfect for their readership to just set it aside. So, Buzzfeed put the information out there with a disclaimer they could use to get themselves off the hook. Again, this is speculation.
A person who has claimed to be? That sounds very reliable. Not somebody with a name. Not a reliable source. Not even someone who spoke on condition of anonymity. A person who claimed to be something in a package of documents that was unverified. 
On Wednesday, the Wall Street Journal published the name of the guy, Chris Steele, who was hired to dig up dirt about Trump during the campaign season. Steele has gone into hiding, reportedly due to fears of retribution from the Russians.
For a look at some real journalism with no disclaimer,  check out this article about Mr. Steele in The Telegraph.
“… the report contains errors.” That’s like saying “We don’t know if it’s real and we won’t be standing behind it if it’s not.”
Would it be acceptable in any other business where accuracy matters to present a report that contained errors? Getting the story right isn’t easy. Even with softball community news, of which I wrote some, it’s hard to get all the details right. Nevertheless, getting the story right is what journalists are supposed to do.
Buzzfeed's suggestion that Americans could make up their own minds about the unverified material in the dossier is ridiculous. How is one supposed to make up his or her mind when the only information available has errors? I could easily believe that Donald Trump has some nasty stuff in his background. I could even believe that he has things in his background that could make him vulnerable to an enemy of the United States. Even so, I would never rely on information like the material in that dossier until it has been verified. 
Note: On the morning of Friday, January 13th, The Wall Street Journal published a note from Ben Smith, Editor in Chief of Buzzfeed, to his staff. It was dated January 10th, the night the dossier was published, and it explained the rationale for publishing it.
"We have been chasing specific claims in this document for weeks, and will continue to," he wrote.
So, in spite of the fact that two reporters and an editor had been trying to dig a story out of the dossier, and had, apparently, not come up with one, Buzzfeed moved forward and published the dossier anyways. That's very interesting because they apparently did find that the dossier contained some errors. That would have been a red flag to most editors.
Editors don't like to use unnamed sources or documents that have not been verified. They don't generally like sticking their necks out, or the necks of their organizations, based on unnamed or unverified sources of information. When using an unnamed source, editors are usually very careful to make sure that whatever information they're getting is reliable. Otherwise, when a story based on an unverified source falls apart because the information wasn't accurate, the editor and the organization look bad, the way Ben Smith and Buzzfeed do right now.
Why did Ben Smith stick his neck out the way he did? Why did he think that there was enough accurate information in the dossier to publish it, in spite of the fact that his own subordinates had not been able to produce a story out of it? I'd speculate that the dossier catered to his biases and beliefs in the same way that all kinds of fake news caters to the biases and beliefs of audiences. People believe fake news because they want to believe. Even very smart people and people who should know better can be fooled. 

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