Updated: BuzzFeed isn’t doing itself any favors on the credibility front

by Mathew on April 10, 2015 · 26 comments

Updated at 4:21 ET on Friday, April 10

Not long after this post was published (thanks a lot, Ben) BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith admitted that he had made a mistake in removing both the Dove post and the Monopoly post referred to below — saying he “blew it” by asking editors to delete those posts, against their better judgement and in contravention of the site’s own standards and practices guide. He said he reacted impulsively and was wrong to do so, and that neither removal had anything to do with advertisers being involved. Both posts have been reinstated with notes that say they were “inappropriately deleted amid an ongoing conversation about how and when to publish personal opinion pieces on BuzzFeed.” I think Ben deserves a lot of credit for admitting his error so quickly and publicly.

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The brouhaha

If you’re not glued to media Twitter the way I am, you might have missed a seemingly minor kerfuffle — or perhaps it was more of a brouhaha — about a post that BuzzFeed removed concerning the recent Dove soap campaign aimed at making women feel better about themselves. Writer Arabelle Sicardi wrote a critical piece for the Life section about the company’s approach and BuzzFeed editors took it down and left in its place a note saying it wasn’t the right “tone” for the site (that note appears to have also been removed). After much criticism from journalists, including a piece at Gawker’s media blog, editor-in-chief Ben Smith posted a tweet with the text of a memo the Life editors sent around about their decision to remove the post (thanks to the folks at the Internet Archive, the original post is available here if you want to read it).

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No more hot takes

In a nutshell, Smith argued that the piece was removed because BuzzFeed is trying to do fewer “hot takes” — that is, personal posts about the writer’s response to some event or news (I asked whether it would have stayed up if the writer had sought out others with the same views, but haven’t gotten a response). As more than one person pointed out in the aftermath of this decision, whatever the merits of the original post might have been — and many people thought it was more than fair — removing an entire post due to its content is explicitly forbidden in BuzzFeed’s code of conduct, which I wrote about when they first released it publicly. It specifically 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.”

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The siren song of advertising

To make matters worse, Dove happens to be an advertiser with BuzzFeed, creating the impression that the site took the post down because it was critical of an ad partner (Smith says he didn’t know Dove was an advertiser until the Gawker story appeared). And that’s not the only incident of its kind — another post, which was critical of the board game Monopoly from Hasbro, was also removed after Hasbro and BuzzFeed announced a partnership related to the game. And according to several sources, the “robots.txt” file that tells search engines what files or pages to avoid when their indexing robots are crawling the site specifically refers to the post about Monopoly, as well as a post about chips — meaning those posts would not come up in a Google search on that topic.

Much of what BuzzFeed has done so far could be either mistakes in judgement or simple errors, including the removal of the Dove post (although the robots.txt file is much harder to explain). Is it BuzzFeed’s right to do whatever it wants to maintain the “tone” it is looking for in its Life section? Of course it is. And it’s possible that the standards that editors are trying to uphold in that section are different than the ones that it is trying to encourage or stick to in the News section of the site. But it’s not clear whether that’s the case — and even if it is whether any readers will be aware of that difference. And while I don’t think the vast majority of readers will either notice or care, those who do notice might start to wonder how much they can trust the site as a news source.

That trust is something BuzzFeed is trying to build up, presumably, so that people (including advertisers) will take it seriously as a news entity as it tries to expand into foreign reporting and investigative news. And just like Rolling Stone magazine with its flawed investigation into the UVA rape story, BuzzFeed risks losing some of the trust it has banked by not being transparent about what it’s doing and why. It’s possible that there won’t be any short-term repercussions as a result of such behavior, but long term it could be harder for the site to argue that it is a reputable news entity — if in fact that is something it cares about, which I think it is.

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