BuzzFeed Sparks Debate Over Media Ethics After Outing Unverified Trump Report


On Jan. 11, BuzzFeed published a dossier about Donald Trump, with a warning that the document contained "specific, unverified, and potentially unverifiable allegations of contact between Trump aides and Russian operatives, and graphic claims of sexual acts."

At Trump's first press conference since the elections, the issue of the unverified report was raised.

Trump called BuzzFeed a "failing pile of garbage" that would "suffer the consequences" of releasing to the public what Trump deemed "fake news." The president-elect also refused to take questions from CNN, which also knew of the dossier.

BuzzFeed maintained that it published the document in the hope that the American people could make up their own minds about the allegations.

The dossier was created by a former British intelligence officer and commissioned by anti-Trump Republicans, and later on by Democrats.

Trump Dossier Alleges Russian Connection

The document alleges that the Russian government has been "cultivating, supporting and assisting" Trump, and also alleges about the president-elect's "personal obsessions and sexual perversion."

BuzzFeed's decision to go public with the report has sparked outrage and criticism over media ethics when it comes to publishing unverified news.

BuzzFeed Backlash From Other Journalists

Media columnist Michael Wolff disagreed and criticized BuzzFeed's decision in a tweet: "This seems preposterous, appalling, opportunistic, and lacking in basic ethics at every level."

"Ethics are simple," Wolff added, "you shouldn't publish what you don't know to be true."

David Corn, Mother Jones' Washington Bureau chief, already broke the news about the dossier's existence as early as October, but did not publish its contents the way BuzzFeed did.

"I accurately characterized the memos — this is important stuff — but didn't publish details. Even Donald Trump deserves journalistic fairness," Corn explained in a tweet.

Margaret Sullivan of The Washington Post also denounced BuzzFeed's actions.

"It's never been acceptable to publish rumor and innuendo. And none of the circumstances surrounding this episode — not CNN's story, not Trump's dubious history with Russia, not the fact that the intelligence community made a report on it — should change that ethical rule."

Sullivan also called out BuzzFeed for its apparent philosophy ("when in doubt, publish") and compared it to other news organizations that proceed with caution ("when in doubt, leave it out").

CNN had access to the dossier but did not publish it, saying that "it has not independently corroborated the specific allegations."

On the other hand, some agree with what BuzzFeed had done.

Richard Tofel of ProPublica commended Ben Smith, BuzzFeed's editor in chief, for publishing the dossier: "Once CNN's story is out, citizens should have evidence to consider for themselves."

BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti supported the news company's decision to publish, and said in an email that the dossier a "newsworthy document."

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