From the Archives: BuzzFeed: Politics, Memes, and the Ethics of Traffic Generation

Note: The following is a piece I put together during the 2012 campaign for a website I was working on that would feature media criticism from a non-journalist's perspective. The site was to be called The Journalist Citizen, and alas I've yet to bring it to fruition. I was proud of this piece, though, so I thought I'd pull it out of the archives.
It's a (now slightly dated) look at my concerns with the journalism model employed by BuzzFeed.com. BuzzFeed was then a Politico-like start-up, but has in the short time since matured into a staple of the online media landscape.I made a few small edits to bring this piece to my blogger (it was originally formatted for wordpress), but the content remains largely the same. This is its first time being published.

BuzzFeed: Politics, Memes, and the Ethics of Traffic Generation
Adam Heffelfinger - TheJournalistCitizen.org - September 2012

This year, BuzzFeed has gained significant attention for their political reporting, and for what New York Magazine calls their "hobbyist oppo research..."
Once upon a time, opposition research was designed to score political hits. Now it can just be about scoring page views.
We at The Journalist Citizen have a problem with this idea. Page views equal advertising dollars in essentially the same way that television ratings do, but the people in charge of caring about the ratings in a newscast are not supposed to be the same people as the ones who care about journalistic credibility. The reason is that it's possible to juice the ratings by fudging it a bit with the facts, and so by keeping these two aspects of the business separate, there's no chance for an intentional or unintentional conflict of interest.

Using real life news material to intentionally manufacture viral content, though, basically requires a very firm grasp of both sides of this divide. The potential for conflict of interest is enormous, and in working in something that's simultaneously a) important and b) intended for consumption by huge numbers of people, the possibility of doing real harm is extremely high.

Let's back up a bit.

If you've spent much time hanging out on the internet this year, and especially if you like memes, countdowns, or even hard-hitting campaign journalism, you've heard of BuzzFeed. BuzzFeed is mostly a site that turns memes into impressions and does so very successfully. They have boiled down the "25 Things That'll Keep You Clicking On Our Site While Filled With Nostalgia" model to an absolute science. But it's also a news organization with reporters embedded, it would seem, just about everywhere in this campaign. First, here's what BuzzFeed says that they are:
BuzzFeed is the leading social news organization, intensely focused on delivering high-quality original reporting, insight, and viral content across a rapidly expanding array of subject areas. Our technology powers the social distribution of content, detects what is trending on the web, and connects people in realtime with the hottest content of the moment. Our site is rapidly growing and reaches more than 25 million monthly unique visitors. Jonah Peretti, founder & CEO of BuzzFeed, previously co-founded the Huffington Post. Ben Smith is its Editor-in-chief.
What BuzzFeed is doing, aside from some serious on the ground reporting, creative Googling, archive searching, and CTRL+F-ing, is creating content. A lot of content.

And that content is having a real impact on the way the campaign is being covered. BuzzFeed's coverage is increasingly being cited by major news outlets, cable news networks and on the pages of The New York Times, with whom they had a video content partnership for the Republican and Democratic Conventions. Here they are being cited by Mother Jones reporter Kevin Drum in a story about Mitt Romney's stance on health care
UPDATE: BuzzFeed passes along yet another clarification. According to an aide, "Gov. Romney will ensure that discrimination against individuals with preexisting conditions who maintain continuous coverage is prohibited."
And here they get a citation from The Los Angeles Times for Zeke Miller's look into the "former Republicans" that spoke at the DNC:
Ciano also stars in an Obama campaign video, “Republican Women for Obama.” A BuzzFeed reporter found that Ciano has been a registered Democrat since 2006.
I could bring you easily a dozen more mentions of these guys from major outlets, but you get the idea, they're becoming quite a big deal. And with reporters on the payroll at BuzzFeed Politics it's probably no wonder. The site boasts a staff including Zeke Miller of Business Insider, Rolling Stone contributor and New York Times bestselling author Michael Hastings, Washington Bureau Chief John Stanton of Roll Call, McKay Coppins of Newsweek, Chris Geidner of MetroWeekly, Rosie Gray of The Village Voice, master of the archive CTRL+F Andrew Kaczynski, and of course Politico reporter and Editor-In-Chief Ben Smith.

Again, what BuzzFeed is doing is creating reams of content with the intention of generating a millions of clicks. At least that’s my understanding of their buzzword heavy blurb's use of words like “viral” “hottest content” and its impressive boast that BuzzFeed “reaches more than 25 million monthly unique visitors." The Journalist Citizen's concerns involve whether or not BuzzFeed is creating this content with the standards we expect from our journalists.

Bear in mind it was BuzzFeed that identified itself as a news organization. If they proclaimed to be a meme factory that occasionally cited facts, then they could hide behind that claim in much the same way that The Daily Show with Jon Stewart does--by refusing to claim to be anything other than comedy. However BuzzFeed does not cater in fake news, but in real news. The Journalist Citizen wants to see them consistently act like it.

My discontentment with them began when Ron Paul spoke at a rally on the eve of the Republican National Convention. Paul took the stage and proclaimed that had he been President the 3000 who perished on 9/11 would still be alive. This was picked up by several outlets but it was at BuzzFeed that I first saw video.

The BuzzFeed video was a :39 clip showing exactly what I've already described. Ron Paul said a thing. What Andrew Kaczynski's post fails to do, though, is offer any context at all. Ron Paul's next sentence may have elaborated and provided his reasoning, it may have been a statement about Paul's ability to resuscitate the dead, or he may have simply moved to a new topic. I felt that his explanation, or his lack of explanation was an important aspect of this story.

Had Ron Paul gone crazy? You couldn't find out at BuzzFeed. BuzzFeed, to their credit had already gotten your click, and perhaps that's their only goal. I would have no problem with such behavior from a meme-generating, content-generating machine. From a news organization, though, I would have liked some context.

I reached out to Andrew on twitter to try to get some of that context, but didn't get a response.

I was growing concerned that it seemed that in BuzzFeed's desire to post as much clicky content as possible, they were using the window dressing of a news organization without some of the important behind-the-scenes bits. I wondered if BuzzFeed even had a policy in place regarding bias, comment, context, or anything other than clickiness.

So I decided to reach out to Editor-In-Chief Ben Smith via twitter to find out. Here's that conversation:

You'll notice I did most of the talking. And that I didn't really get an answer. So I reached out to Smith again via email. I asked him again about BuzzFeed's policies and got a pretty similar answer at first:
We don't have a published policy. We try to be accurate, neutral, and fair in the tradition of much of modern American journalism, and as transparent and responsive as possible in the tradition of much of the best online journalism. I don't fully understand what you're asking beyond that.
What I began to wonder is if the policy I was asking about was something that wasn't as common as I thought it was. I'd experienced them in my time doing journalism at the high school and college level, but were they only there because we were not journalism school grads? (Though a Google search would alleviate my concerns). I followed up again with Ben to try to alleviate the confusion, and he responded by asking me if I thought that such policies served a purpose, which seemed to me like a bit of a dodge.
Did you think that the written guidelines helped? I'm honestly not sure if there ever was one at a publication I worked at, and that beyond the basic rules of fairness and accuracy, I'm not sure this is a profession that can be captured in a detailed set of rules and guidelines.
I explained my stance: that having the rules were important, because they provided something to hold reporters accountable to. And it shows that the newsroom has a standard they're aiming for. I added that "any workplace has that rule that everybody thinks is too obvious to be worth the paper it's printed on, but that one time it's broken you don't have to worry about the culprit claiming ignorance." Ben's response troubled me:
I'm quite suspicious of the professionalization of journalism and of the idea of "journalistic ethics" as something separate from "ethics." People, journalists or not, should tell the truth, be fair and responsible.
I replied with an elaboration of my "obvious workplace rule" hypothesis and how I think it relates to journalism:
I don't know if I see it that way. I mean, I agree that telling the truth, being fair, and being responsible are ethics that we ought to expect of everyone, but I think there's an importance to journalists committing in writing to those things. People are constantly dishonest and we can choose to disregard them based on their level of honesty. If a news organization claims that it is honest, and it isn't, the audience can choose to disregard its reporting the way they disregard lying peers. (As many do with regards to Fox News). Additionally a news organization can take action against a reporter it doesn't believe is truthful, as happened with Blair, Glass, Lehrer etc. On the other hand, if a news organization makes no explicit claims to honesty, or doesn't have that obvious rule in its handbook that it can still be held accountable to, then it becomes a little like that workplace that DOESN'T have the obvious rule. There's a technicality they could theoretically point to, "I didn't SAY I'd be honest, did I?" Or to put it more mildly, The Daily Show consistently ducks questions of fairness and balance and accuracy by saying "we're just a comedy show." By not putting in writing that they'll tell the truth, couldn't any news organization essentially do the a version of the same? "We're just generating content, we didn't make any promises about it's veracity."
At this point, I felt Ben's answer got a bit dismissive:
Have you spent a lot of time working in journalism? That's not my experience of it, but I'm sure different people experience things differently.
...so I thanked him for his time.

I think it important to reiterate that BuzzFeed is engaging in plenty of real journalism. They do good work.

But they are also quite obviously aiming for clickability as much as for credibility, and the concern of The Journalist Citizen is where one ends and the other begins.

For every scoop there's a cheap shot at a politician that they know will generate twice the traffic. For every great archive find that shows us a party's willingness to be on both sides of an issue, there's a lazy post that's fails to be timely, newsworthy, or really relevant to much of anything (but I clicked it because, out of context, Putin is HILARIOUS).

BuzzFeed has, in no uncertain terms, claimed for itself the title of "news organization." What it needs to do now is decide to what extent it is, or is not, willing to act like one. BuzzFeed's Editor-In-Chief doesn't think that the site needs a code of ethics, while we at The Journalist Citizen respectfully disagree. Such codes are important to handling situations where the rules of journalism are broken.

If we can use a trick of BuzzFeed's and mix my pop culture with my journalism for a moment, we believe that with great power comes great responsibility. If BuzzFeed wants to be news, and not simply politics-related content generation, they should commit publicly to being truthful, fair, and responsible. The Journalist Citizen feels that without a firm code of journalistic ethics there is a real danger in generating tons of memetic, clicky content made out of real issues instead of cute animals. While we absolutely believe Ben Smith when he says they all aspire to that, The Journalist Citizen would prefer to have the really obvious workplace rule in the handbook.

We are not of the opinion that lolcats, autocorrect fails and highly detailed foreign policy coverage cannot coexist, but we believe strongly that these traffic generators should follow different rules.

These guys have proven again and again that they're capable of great work, The Journalist Citizen challenges them to show they also have a commitment to impartiality and fairness.

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