This past year, I had a student in Washington who was really into BuzzFeed, for many reasons, including lots of valid ones.
Like it or not, she said, the mainstream press was going to have to come to terms with key elements of the BuzzFeed business model, especially the idea of breaking stories down into humorous and entertaining listicles that force profitable mouse clicks. This concept, she added, could save the news industry by helping young readers develop habits of news consumption.
I asked: But what about basic news? How do these digital-era concepts apply to the coverage of daily hard news about topics that, like it or not, are essential to life and public discourse? Her reply was blunt: That doesn't matter since young readers won't read those kinds of news stories anyway.
I was also worried about continuing efforts to erase the line between news coverage and editorial writing, in the snarky new listicles, first-person features and in the waves of "reported blogging" pieces that are spreading through the websites of conventional newsrooms. Oh yes, and things like the Twitter blast at the top of this post.
Then there was that famous statement by BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith (see my post "From old Kellerism to new BuzzFeed") that bluntly stated:
“We firmly believe that for a number of issues, including civil rights, women’s rights, anti-racism, and LGBT equality, there are not two sides.”
Smith later said, in a Hugh Hewitt interview (transcript here) explained his newsroom's open celebration of the 5-4 Obergefell decision:
BS: I don’t really think there, I mean, I guess I don’t really think there was much of a controversy, or at least I didn’t see. There were like, I’ve been tweeting with three people today -- Tim Carney and a guy named, just, I mean, but I’m not sure like three or four people make a controversy. But I think we have, we drafted and published a Standards Guide and an Ethics Guide several months ago, and I think we’ve been wrestling with something I’m sure you think about a lot, which is, although I think I probably come down somewhere a bit differently from you, which is you know, is it possible to, look, what is the tradition that used to be called kind of objective journalism, mainstream media journalism, the tradition the New York Times and the Washington Post come out of, which is the tradition I come out of? You know, how do you do that in a way that, you know, that’s honest with your readers? And I think you know, there’s always been, for a long time, been this debate both on the right and on the left saying come on, you guys, stop lying, don’t conceal your opinions. We know you have real opinions. And at the same time, of course, everyone has a set of implicit opinions about, you know, you don’t have to say, Hugh, that like you oppose racism and that you favor free speech. Those are obviously baked into your coverage, just as much as they’re baked into the New York Times’ coverage.
Parse that. Please.
This leads us back to the NSFC (not safe for church) tweet at the top of this post from BuzzFeed news editor Rachel Zarrell. A member of the wider GetReligion family send me the URL for that one with a simple statement: "Time to tackle buzzfeed?"
I took this to mean that, in terms of WWW news trends, that newsroom -- with its constant blurring of the lines between hard news, editorials, entertainment and personal outrage -- is going to keep producing material that will drive traditional journalists bonkers. Can we ignore that? We ask the same questions in GetReligion email circles about The Daily Beast.
Take that tweet at the top of this post. This is, of course, a reference to the ongoing issue of state officials -- clerks, mainly -- who believe that taking part in same-sex marriages violates their First Amendment right to the free exercise of religious freedom.
The irony of the Zarrell tweet is that it perfectly captures what SOME clerks would actually like to do -- stand aside.
Experienced journalists covering this story know that there are plenty of clerks who have no problem with same-sex marriage. There are also some state officials who reject the Obergefell decision altogether and plan to fight it, tooth and toenail. They want to ignore the ruling.
However, there are also clerks and other officials believe they are caught in a legitimate conflict of interest situation. Because of their religious beliefs, they do not believe that they can have anything to do with a same-sex marriage. However, they recognize the change the court has made in the law.
Thus, they believe they face a legal conflict of interest that they must declare, as covered in conflict of interest laws. It is their duty, facing this conflict, to stand aside and let another official -- one without this conflict of interest -- handle this public duty, presenting no obstacle to the citizens requesting this public service. They are willing to stand aside. However, they do not want to be fired for the free exercise of their religious beliefs.
As is often the case, journalists need to know that there are people caught in the middle, between the two most frequently covered camps in this debate.
Of course, it is hard to cover a point of view if you don't know that it exists.
It's even harder to cover a point of view if your newsroom actively oppose its right to exist.
That brings us to the next Zarrell tweet:
In other words, BuzzFeed appears to have institutionalized, in print, the essence of the Kellerism doctrines. Check out the following from the BuzzFeed Editorial Standards and Ethics Guide:
We firmly believe that for a number of issues, including civil rights, women’s rights, anti-racism, and LGBT equality, there are not two sides. But when it comes to activism, BuzzFeed editorial must follow the lead of our editors and reporters who come out of a tradition of rigorous, neutral journalism that puts facts and news first. If we don’t, it makes it harder for those reporters to do their jobs. We encourage cross-team collaboration, but Buzz and Life staffers who wish to write on a hot-button news event should consult with News editors before publishing.
So the newsroom is committed to "rigorous, neutral journalism that puts facts and news first," while also arguing that there are major stories on which it is against newsroom policies to consider the facts, arguments and beliefs of people on the other side, since there is, by definition, no other side.
Wait, there is more:
While we understand that many BuzzFeed editorial staffers are passionate and thoughtful and hold personal views on policy issues or candidates, we must maintain one blanket rule for all of editorial: Political partisanship may not be expressed in public forums, including Twitter and Facebook.
Wait, so did Zarrell violate her own newsroom's policy manual in her fierce and profane Twitter blast? In a way, after all, what she said was built on the logic of her newsroom's policy and ethics manual. Also, with a same-sex marriage question, are we talking about an issue that now must be considered moral and doctrinal at BuzzFeed, as opposed to public and "political"?
So is it time for a journalism site like GetReligion to "tackle" BuzzFeed material? After all, we are dedicated to old-school American Model of the Press standards of accuracy, balance, fairness and respect for articulate voices on both sides of heated pubic debates. It's hard to criticize a website for its lack of fairness and balance when its own policy manual says it would be wrong to show respect for citizens on both sides of key public debates. Right?
What think ye, readers? Focus on the journalism issue here, if you want your comments to be posted.