Context, verification and BuzzFeed’s decision to publish that dossier …

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.

Meerkat for President!

Here’s where I confess that I first thought Meerkat was somehow related to Mammal March Madness*. It’s not. It’s an app that makes streaming video almost as simple as tapping out a tweet, and yesterday it collided with the world of political journalism. Hard.

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A screen grab from yesterday’s live stream of Trump’s interview with the UL.

The Union Leader has long been a force in Republican politics, something that’s especially apparent during the early months of New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary. Potential candidates stop by the Manchester newsroom for meetings with the UL’s editorial board – the first step towards winning the paper’s coveted endorsement.

Yesterday, that potential candidate was Donald Trump. And the editorial board decided to use Meerkat to live stream the whole thing. I watched for a few minutes, and it looked like at least 50 other people did, too. It wasn’t long before other local news organizations had opened accounts of their own. NECN streamed one of Trump’s campaign stops later in the day, and my iPhone buzzed all night with alerts that other political journalists had opened accounts on the app.

The technology is pretty cool and becoming more common. Meerkat was a huge hit at SxSW, and Twitter recently acquired similar software. There’s also an app called Stre.am that’s gaining traction, although I don’t know much about how it works.

If you want to try it yourself, remember that this is video so all related tips apply: Use an external mic to get the best sound, avoid vertical frames and, as one local reporter suggested to me on Facebook, consider getting a tripod if you’ll be streaming for long periods of time.

I suspect Meerkat and similar tools will become standard fare on the campaign trail – a new window into real-time politicking and a reminder of how fast the practice of journalism is changing.

*If you don’t know about Mammal March Madness, stop reading this blog immediately and click here for deets.