Was BuzzFeed right to publish the Donald Trump “golden showers” dossier?

The news site released documents containing unverified claims about the President-Elect’s behaviour in Russia.

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The US news site BuzzFeed has published an entire dossier of unverified claims about Donald Trump. The leaked intelligence report is full of unsubstantiated stories about the President Elect’s behaviour in Russia. Detailing a graphic sex act, the scandal has swiftly and gleefully been labelled “watersportsgate”.

And just as Trump has become the focus of internet jokes, BuzzFeed is now at the centre of a scandal of its own – albeit a drier one. A media ethics crisis.

The president-elect himself has accused BuzzFeed of propagating “fake news” – a media phenomenon which was much-discussed during and after the US election campaign, when false stories circulated about Trump’s rivals. And the US-based news organisation doesn’t even know whether the news it has reported is fake or not.

The story, headlined “These Reports Allege Trump Has Deep Ties To Russia”, links to the full, unredacted dossier, so that “Americans can make up their own minds about allegations about the president-elect that have circulated at the highest levels of the US government”.

Its story admits that its journalists have not “verified or falsified” the claims, and warns, “the allegations are unverified, and the report contains errors”.

Criticism was quick to appear. “By publishing the full document without proof of its veracity, journalists risk undermining public faith in the media,” writes Rupert Myers, GQ’s political correspondent. “You can’t complain about the deluge of fake news shared by all of Trump’s supporters if you’re encouraging people to believe in this latest piece of unverified scandal.”

“How, exactly, are Americans supposed to make up their own minds about allegations presented without verification or evidence?” tweeted Brad Heath, a USA Today investigative journalist.

Trump dismissed the story as “FAKE NEWS – A TOTAL POLITICAL WITCHUNT!” on Twitter, and his lawyer Michael Cohen has issued a blanket denial to Mic, claiming, “the person who created this [document] did so from their imagination”.

So how is running this story different from the bogus exposés invented about Hillary Clinton? Surely a journalist’s job is to stand up a story, rather than simply leaving it up to the reader’s interpretation?

I contacted both BuzzFeed’s UK and US teams to ask why they published the document – and if they had “fake news” concerns. Neither would comment. But a memo sent to staff by BuzzFeed’s editor-in-chief Ben Smith says the decision behind publishing was to enlighten readers:

“Our presumption is to be transparent in our journalism and to share what we have with our readers . . . In this case, the document was in wide circulation at the highest levels of American government and media.

“It seems to lie behind a set of vague allegations from the Senate Majority Leader to the director of the FBI and a report that intelligence agencies have delivered to the president and president-elect . . . publishing this dossier reflects how we see the job of reporters in 2017.”

The rationale is that news of this document's existence was already public. It had been reported on (in general terms, without the specific allegations being mentioned) by both Mother Jones and CNN. So BuzzFeed was just moving the story forward by giving readers the opportunity to see its contents.

This dilemma perfectly encapsulates how digital news is changing journalism. A tension between transparency and accuracy has been growing over the past few years, according to former BBC journalist Nic Newman, research associate at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and author of the Digital News Project 2017.

“You used to basically not do anything unless you had two sources on it,” he recalls. “Twenty-four-hour news came around, and then people said, increasingly: ‘You’re hiding something; you need to be more transparent’.”

He believes BuzzFeed’s story reflects this modern urge for transparency: “On the one hand, it’s good to be transparent, let people know what you’ve got,” he says. “On the other, there’s a real danger of putting stuff out there if you can’t verify it . . . it’s not good for our democracy if people can’t tell truth from lies.”

Giving readers the entire document is “putting a lot of weight on individuals to try and make those judgements and sort these things for themselves”, Newman says. He ran focus groups on transparency in journalism last year, and found, “consumers are stressed by this; they feel overloaded with information and they don’t know what to trust and what not to trust”.

He says this ties into the “fake news” phenomenon; people believe what they want to, because they don’t know which sources to trust. In trying to inform its readers as thoroughly as possible, BuzzFeed may have done the opposite.

In this case, the dossier’s claims have neither been corroborated nor redacted. There is also no proof of the source’s identity (a “British former intelligence agent”), and what their motivation was for leaking this information. Without this context, how useful is this document really to the reader? Is there a danger that repeating unverified rumours is exactly the kind of “fake news” which journalists are supposed to counteract?

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.