Buzzfeed’s publication of the unverified ‘Trump Dossier’ only bolsters his narrative of a ‘dishonest’ media

By Maral Tavitian

Tavitian is studying print and digital journalism at the University of Southern California and is special projects editor for USC Annenberg Media (uscannenbergmedia.com).

From the moment Donald J. Trump announced his candidacy inside the gilded walls of Trump Tower, I’ve observed firsthand how this man and his improbable success have reshaped journalism education in America.

My classes at the University of Southern California now regularly include fiery debates about journalistic ethics, integrity and the hottest topic of all — objectivity.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines objectivity as being “uninfluenced by personal feelings or opinions in the representation of facts.” But in the Trump Era, the term has taken on a far more complex dimension.

How do journalists cover a president who has expressed outright disdain for their profession, if not their very presence? How do we report on proposed policies that threaten basic principles of democracy and American unity? When do we use the word “lie” to describe a false statement? Are all tweets newsworthy?

We will continue to ponder these questions in the months and years ahead. The answers will hardly be simple or self-evident, and Trump’s unconventional relationship with the press has already upended longstanding journalistic practices.

Throughout his campaign, Trump used Twitter as a tool to communicate directly with the public and to manipulate the daily news cycle. He waited 167 days to hold his first post-election news conference — longer than any previous president-elect dating back to 1976 — largely avoiding direct questioning from reporters covering his transition.

But even if the way we go about our jobs changes dramatically, journalists must clarify our shared goals and values under Trump.

What’s crystal clear to me, and should be to any American, is the idea of truth as a great unifier. Truth does not discriminate based on race, religion or class; truth just is. Truth helps people make informed decisions about everything from personal finance to politics. Historical truths help us understand the present through the context of past events.

As journalists, our most important job is to relentlessly pursue truth, to parse fact from fiction and to present information with utmost certainty.

BuzzFeed’s controversial decision to publish a dossier containing explosive and unverified claims about Trump’s relationship with Russia violated this fundamental tenet of good journalism.

Prepared by a former British intelligence officer, the 35-page document had been circulating among high-ranking U.S. government officials and some journalists since the fall. Intelligence officials recently provided a summary of the allegations to Trump and President Obama, CNN reported last week.

Roughly an hour after CNN released its story, BuzzFeed published the entire dossier, writing, “BuzzFeed News is publishing the full document so that Americans can make up their own minds about allegations about the president-elect that have circulated at the highest levels of the U.S. government.”

In an email to his staff, BuzzFeed editor Ben Smith argued that “publishing the dossier reflects how we see the job of reporters in 2017.”

As truth-tellers by trade, journalists must aggressively vet and verify information before presenting it to readers. However noble the intention, BuzzFeed’s decision to publish unsubstantiated claims erodes trust between journalists and the public, bolstering Trump’s narrative about the crooked and dishonest media.

With Trump’s campaign came the rise of what we now refer to as “fake news,” or fictitious stories disseminated largely through social media. The best defense against fake news is real news so interesting and invaluable that people will commit to paying for it.

Knowingly publishing unverified information undermines a news organization’s credibility in the eyes of readers.

As America prepares for the inauguration of a president who has shown terrifyingly little tolerance for dissent, the press remains one of the last crucial checks on his power, an institution whose existence has long been a bedrock of democracy.

We mustn’t allow irresponsible decisions by individual news organizations to chip away at the foundations of journalism as a whole.

Follow Maral Tavitian on Twitter @maraltavit.

 

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