Is it more important for a journalist to provide context for their stories or to present them with absolute transparency?
Last week a debate among journalists had risen over BuzzFeed’s release of a dossier that had recently been exchanging hands, within DC circles, in regards to Donald Trump and his ties with Russia. While there are some pretty scandalous stories within the dossier, the most damning accusations in the report had to do with the claim that the Russian Government could potentially compromise a Donald Trump presidency through blackmail.
However, the problem with the Trump Dossier is that none of the stories within it have been verified, so it could so happen that many stories in the dossier could be fake! This has led to some serious debates among many in the media whether the release of the internal report violated any journalistic standards. As you may have guessed, there looks to be solid points on both sides of the argument.
We feel a Point/Counter-Point coming on!
Point: The function of journalism is to report the news to the public in absolute transparency!
— Ben Smith (@BuzzFeedBen) January 11, 2017
Today the public’s trust in journalistic institutions is at an all-time low and the media’s condemning of BuzzFeed in releasing the Trump Dossier is the reason why! Whether it’s Washington Post reporter Philip Bump talking about the potential downfalls of the leak or Kelly McBride of Poynter (a group that discusses journalistic ethics) describing BuzzFeed’s approach to journalism as “when in doubt, publish”, major media outlets are ignoring the number one axiom in their medium; to report the news!
BuzzFeed in leaking the Trump Dossier was only doing their job as a news organization. For months, dossier had been circulating for weeks in DC circles among politicians, intelligence agencies, and certain journalists, yet the public had no knowledge of the report until BuzzFeed had leaked it last week. Even though other journalists knew about the allegations within the report, they decided to skirt their basic journalistic duty and not report the details within the dossier. Also let’s be clear, this isn’t an issue about journalistic ethics, it’s an issue of transparency!
Many traditional journalistic institutions (like newspapers and magazines) have had trouble adapting to the transition of the Internet over the last few decades. Many journalists feel their job is to be information brokers to the public; putting stories into context, even if that means not reporting on it! There is no denying the Trump Dossier, as it stands now, is hard to frame for the for the average person because much of the information is still unconfirmed. However, considering many within Washington are taking the report seriously enough that they are asking major US intelligence agencies to vet it, how can journalists possibly think the public shouldn’t at least be informed about what’s in the report? How ethical is it for journalists to sit on information that the public would be interested in knowing?
If that’s the case, then their journalistic ethics do nothing to help the public good! If you’re one of those journalists that that think BuzzFeed was out-of-line in publishing the Trump Dossier, then maybe it’s YOU that has to rethink YOUR journalistic standards!
Counter-Point: In journalism, transparency means nothing without context!
What BuzzFeed essentially did with leaking the Trump Dossier was cause a public panic for their own benefit! To be clear, the job of the media is not to just report on the news, but to frame news stories and to give them context. In the age of the Internet, raw information is everywhere. For news organizations to just blindly plop-out news stories holds no value for the American public in the age when the average person is blindsided with information. In fact, to report on the news without any context can actually be a detriment to better understanding the news.
Since its release, the dossier has become a trending topic on Twitter, with people sharing the internal report without knowing if any of it is actually true. After the Pizzagate fiasco and the proliferation of fake news in the last election cycle, you would think BuzzFeed would be more careful in releasing something that has yet to be verified! The leaking of the report could be doing more harm than good by potentially spreading fake headlines and making unverified stories look to be as truth. In a way, BuzzFeed might have actually released too much information, making it very hard (if not impossible) to suss out what is the truth, from tawdry political fan fiction!
BuzzFeed had insisted that Americans should “make up their own minds”, when questioned about the journalistic ethics regarding the leaking of the dossier. However, considering intelligence agencies and news organizations for months haven’t been able to verify the things in in report, what chance does a person on the street have? Transparency within a news organization is vital if it wants to be relevant to its audience in the 21st Century, but there are other variables to consider in the equation. BuzzFeed clearly overlooked the costs of publishing a secret/unverifiable report, in search for website hits!
(Photo Credits: Pixabay.com)