BuzzFeed gets serious with new editorial standards and ethics guide

by Mathew on January 30, 2015

As it has grown from being a media laboratory in which Jonah Peretti experimented with viral content into a full-fledged media entity worth close to a billion dollars, BuzzFeed has had to amend some of its previous practices — including the use of images with little or no attribution, something it was heavily criticized for in the past. As part of this growing-up process, the company has now come out with a new editorial standards and ethical practices guide that lays out what staff can and can’t do.

The guide was put together by BuzzFeed’s executive editor for news, Shani O. Hilton, over the past few months. But Hilton made it clear the document was a collaborative effort involving the company’s entire editorial staff, as well as outside experts who were consulted on various questions of journalistic ethics. And the site decided to publish it, she said, because it wants to be transparent with its readers.

“BuzzFeed has the opportunity to help shape a new set of standards for a new generation of media. We are offering these standards to our staffers and to our readers as a first attempt at articulating the goal of merging the best of traditional media’s values with a true openness to the deep shifts in the forms of media and communication. We are making this document public to keep BuzzFeed’s writers, reporters, and editors accountable to our readers.”

Separate standards for Buzz

Although the document applies to all the members of BuzzFeed’s editorial staff, some elements of the standards it describes are different for specific sections, Hilton says in her post announcing the new guide. The site separated its work into three content units last year: Buzz refers to the kind of listicle or GIF-driven post that the site became known for in its early years, Life is dedicated to posts about lifestyle topics, and News is where the more serious political or investigative content appears.

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So, for example, the guide says that BuzzFeed News staffers “should refrain from commenting in a partisan way about candidates or policy issues” and are not allowed to donate money or volunteer for political candidates. BuzzFeed Life and Buzz staffers, however, are allowed to “express personal views on policy in a non-partisan way” and to volunteer for candidates — unless they decide to write about a political topic, in which case they have to abide by the same rules as a News staffer.

As is common with the standards and practices at most mainstream media entities, BuzzFeed’s guide notes that reporters should never share drafts of a story with a source before publication or give them quote approval, should only use anonymous quotes in extreme circumstances and after checking with an editor first, and should not accept freebies — including travel — or compensate sources for their stories or quotes. One section that might be unique to BuzzFeed is the one that talks about not taking selfies with celebrities:

“Selfies are fantastic and you should take them as often as possible with friends and loved ones. But when celebrity visitors come to a BuzzFeed office, please don’t ask for photographs unless the staffer who brought them in has checked that it’s okay. BuzzFeed News reporters should use good judgment when taking images with their subjects.”

Editorial vs. advertising

One other interesting element of the new standards guide is the section that talks about the separation between editorial staff and those who do custom-content production for BuzzFeed’s advertising unit, including its BuzzFeed Motion Pictures operation. While some traditional media entities such as Conde Nast have blurred the line between editorial and advertising by getting editors to work on both, BuzzFeed says the so-called “Chinese wall” between these two sides of the operation is firm.

“BuzzFeed relies deeply on the trust of our readers that we are bringing them accurate reporting, great entertainment, and useful service — and so we maintain a strict and traditional separation between advertising and editorial content. The work of reporters, writers, and editors is entirely independent of our ad salespeople and their clients. Ad creatives report to the business side of BuzzFeed, not to editorial.”

Editorial staffers “should never discuss a story about a company with a business-side staffer who works with that company,” the document states, and anyone who works on the business side of the site who wants to talk about editorial content “may communicate them only to the editor-in-chief.” While the company says it encourages staffers in editorial to collaborate with staffers in video or on the tech or data side of the company, “edit staffers must never collaborate or contribute to content that is part of an ad campaign.”

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The standards guide doesn’t talk specifically about the attribution of images, which became a controversy in 2012 after complaints from Reddit and other sites that BuzzFeed was taking images and re-using them without proper attribution. Hilton said that this topic would be dealt with in a future update. But the document does say that all information used in news stories must come from a “verified source,” and that plagiarism is forbidden: “To plagiarize is to trick the reader. Nothing may be copied, pasted, and passed off as one’s own work, including press releases.”

BuzzFeed political writer Benny Johnson was fired last July after a couple of anonymous bloggers pointed out numerous examples in which he had plagiarised material from other websites and news outlets. In a response to the New York Times, editor-in-chief Ben Smith said that while BuzzFeed might have had different standards when it began as an experimental project, it intended to hold itself to much higher standards. The document Hilton has put together is clearly part of that effort.

One other area in which BuzzFeed has changed its practices after much criticism is the area of deleting old posts: last year, the site was widely criticized for removing more than 4,000 posts in a mass deletion effort that founder Jonah Peretti said was intended to clean up items that didn’t make sense any more or were broken in some technical way. But many journalists saw it instead as an attempt to erase history, and Smith later said that the process was handled badly because the site didn’t think through the implications.

The new standards document says “editorial posts should never be deleted for reasons related to their content, or because a subject or stakeholder has asked you to do so.” Posts can be unpublished in some cases if they go up early due to a mistake by an editor, but even if the post is based on incorrect information, it should not be removed but instead should be updated or corrected, or disclosed to be false.

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