PASADENA, Calif. – The spread of a report about supposed damaging information about President-elect Donald Trump collected by Russia became a public test of journalistic standards, but burst into public consciousness even as those standards were being debated.
Hours after news reports circulated Tuesday that Trump had been briefed by intelligence officials about the existence of the dossier on him, BuzzFeed News published a summary of those allegations. It published despite its editor noting that there is reason to doubt the truth of them.
Most news organizations, including The Associated Press, held back on the specific allegations because they had not been substantiated. “Even Donald Trump deserves journalistic fairness,” tweeted David Corn, Washington bureau chief of Mother Jones.
Yet the news spread so quickly that by Tuesday night, one specific, salacious allegation was a top trending topic on Twitter.
Ben Smith, editor of BuzzFeed, explained in a note to his staff that was published on Twitter that the news organization published the information so Americans could make up their own minds about allegations that have been circulating at the highest levels of the United States government.
“Our presumption is to be transparent in our journalism and to share what we have with our readers,” Smith wrote. “We have always erred on the side of publishing.”
He noted the doubt about the allegations, and said BuzzFeed had tried and will continue trying to verify them.
“People of good will may disagree with our choice,” he wrote. “But publishing this dossier reflects how we see the job of reporters in 2017.”
It’s the latest, and a vitally important, example of how the internet has changed the flow of news and information, said veteran media ethicist Bob Steele.
“It’s a very, very difficult time for editors of mainstream news organizations,” he said.
BuzzFeed is taking a big risk by publishing the information, he said. It’s important if such allegations are spread that organizations are clear about what has or hasn’t been substantiated, and whether an effort is being made to do so, he said.
The president-elect’s reaction on Twitter: “Fake news! A total political witch hunt!”
Kelly McBride, a media ethicist for the Poynter Institute, compared BuzzFeed’s action to document dumps by websites like WikiLeaks.
Smith “says that this is the job of reporters in 2017,” McBride said. “What I want to ask back is, ‘Where’s the reporting?’ The job of reporting is to actually report. They didn’t put anything out there about what they’re doing to verify or debunk the claims or even if they’re going to verify or debunk the claims.”
It doesn’t mean journalists should be above asking the public for help in getting to the bottom of stories; one example is stories about sexual abuse by religious officials, she said.
“I’m struggling with whether this is an act of journalism,” she said. “I don’t think it’s journalism. It’s something else.”