In Plagiarism And Lost Posts, BuzzFeed's Strained Journalistic Evolution

Aug 25, 2014
Originally published on August 25, 2014 5:53 pm
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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Now plagiarism online - specifically at BuzzFeed. Plagiarism got one editor fired there last month, and now the company has been caught taking down thousands of old postings. That raised questions about whether BuzzFeed was trying to hide articles that contained still more journalistic dishonesty. NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik is here now to tell us what this has to say about the evolution of buzz feed. Hi, David.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Hey, Robert.

SIEGEL: BuzzFeed describes itself as a social news and entertainment company. This is not a site with a reputation for journalistic rigor, but why did they say they were firing editor Benny Johnson a couple of weeks back?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, and let me push back a little bit. I think in the last - call it two and a half years under the editor-in-chief Ben Smith, they have built a team of reporters and editors who are taking more enterprise - doing things more originally. But Benny Johnson was a political editor responsible for making things go viral in their coverage of politics. And he was found to have lifted a number of things from a number of sources -Yahoo Answers, Wikipedia, U.S. News & World Report and other sources. And despite initially being defended by Ben Smith and others at BuzzFeed, the examples mounted up, and they were forced to fire him. I want to say that's not simply an issue that arises in digital media. If you think about Fareed Zakaria of CNN, most recently also of the Atlantic - he's also faced accusations in the past and recently as well of lifting unattributed material.

SIEGEL: Back to BuzzFeed - more recently there were lots and lots of articles that disappeared from BuzzFeed. What happened to all of them?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, and Gawker's J.K. Trotter identified more than 4,000 articles that disappeared. In one case nearly half of the articles written by a senior editor simply vanished. I talked at some length with Ben Smith, the editor-in-chief, and he said look, there was nothing nefarious about this. What happened was that earlier this spring he went to some of the writers who had been there for a while and said look, why don't you identify the articles that you want to keep before we became a true news organization, and see which ones you want to keep online. And he said there was a combination of technical and journalistic reasons for this. Partly it was they had changed their content management systems and a lot of their links didn't work.

But in another sense, he said look, this is part of our evolution. If we're going to be a news organization we have to account to certain standards. There were a lot of times where they had sourcing that wasn't clear. For example, they might say at the bottom of a post, the source was the film website IMDB, but not really make clear what information or how much of it came from that source. And he said he wanted to clean things up. What they didn't do was explain to readers what was happening. And simply if you clicked on a link to that post, it had gone. It steered people back to the homepage - a pretty confusing thing for readers to come across.

SIEGEL: But you're describing a technical, editorial cleanup, not an issue of editorial integrity there.

FOLKENFLIK: Well, you know, Smith said the majority of it had to do with the technological issues. But he concedes that, you know, there were articles and postings done prior to early 2012 when BuzzFeed thought of itself as a site for experimentation of viral content - a social media playground, if you will - that was getting a lot of attention - that they weren't adhering to journalistic standards 'cause they weren't thinking of themselves explicitly as journalists.

And so this really, I think, is a moment to register that they were different chapters in BuzzFeed's life, and they were adhering to different rules at different times.

SIEGEL: Do online news organizations - say, like BuzzFeed, which doesn't grow out of a newspaper or a television network - do they actually have a core of recognized principles that if you're going to be in the game you've got to adhere to?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, Ben Smith would say they're evolving, you know? And one of the things he said to me when we spoke earlier today was that he saw BuzzFeed as adhering to contemporary journalism standards. But one of the most interesting things, I think, about that is that in this new digital space, BuzzFeed is the kind of actor that people look to to help shape what those standards are.

And if BuzzFeed isn't clear about them and the people working there aren't clear on them, it's very hard to know that other folks working for these sort of new actors are going to, you know, adhere to what we think of as fairly rigorous journalistic principles. And it's a question, in some ways, of translating them from old media to new media and a question, in some ways, of just saying what is it we believe and communicating that to the public directly and transparently.

SIEGEL: OK. Thank you, David.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet.

SIEGEL: That's NPR media correspondent, David Folkenflik. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.