A few people have asked me what I think of BuzzFeed’s decision to publish a 35-page document describing unverified claims about connections between Russia and President-elect Donald Trump.
Here’s my take: This story required news organizations to navigate the sometimes competing demands of verification and contextualization. BuzzFeed chose a (perhaps radical) version of the latter. CNN broke the story Tuesday and took a different approach, holding back the dossier itself but reporting that Trump and President Obama had been briefed on its contents.
The existence of the documents and their inclusion in presidential security briefings is, indeed, newsworthy. This is not, as Trump said on Twitter, “fake news.” CNN was right to report the information and did a good job unpacking a rather serpentine narrative. It was also appropriate for other news organizations, BuzzFeed included, to advance the story.
The debate over how to best accomplish that represents the very public way editorial decisions unfold in today’s media landscape. At first, I was firmly in the verification-above-all-else camp, especially given the digital proliferation of hoaxes and half truths. In general, I admire BuzzFeed’s news operation, but I rolled my eyes when I saw its push notification about publishing the dossier.
After I read the documents, though, the situation felt murkier. In many ways, the specter of the dossier was more salacious than its actual contents. The allegations are troubling but not surprising. Reporting on the intelligence community’s reaction without providing the full context of what it was reacting to creates an environment ripe for rumors. By publishing the documents – and pointing out potential problems with the information – BuzzFeed may have made a complicated story more accessible to the average reader.
Or it might have done just the opposite, making it even easier for partisans to play fast and loose with facts. We still don’t know and may not for weeks or months to come.
As BuzzFeed editor Ben Smith wrote in a memo to his staff, the decision to publish “was not an easy or simple call.” Instead, Smith said, it reflects BuzzFeed’s tendency to be transparent whenever possible and “how we see the job of reporters in 2017.”
Transparency is untidy, but that’s neither new nor bad. Journalism is a study in humanity and, as such, has always been messy. It’s inherently full of contradictions, chaos and, as Jack Fuller once wrote, “provisional truth.” When deadline hits, questions remain unanswered. Some may never be answerable at all. Digital publishing makes it more necessary that we’re honest about this reality, both with ourselves and with the public we serve.
We must remember, though, that messiness and sloppiness are not the same. Being open about the former and guarding against the latter is something else journalists must do in 2017 and beyond.