The results of BuzzFeed’s internal review are back and they aren’t pretty. In a post entitled “An Apology to Our Readers”, BuzzFeed’s Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith disclosed that after reviewing 500 posts from one of BuzzFeed’s leading reporters, Benny Johnson, Smith and others discovered “41 instances of sentences or phrases copied word for word from other sites.”
The sites Johnson plagiarized range from The New York Times to Yahoo! Answers. So far over 30 sources have been identified as having been victimized by BuzzFeed. Smith said he and the editors responsible for checking Johnson’s work were responsible and explained why BuzzFeed has such a notoriously permissive culture when it comes to using other people’s content without attribution:
We owe you, our readers, an apology. This plagiarism is a breach of our fundamental responsibility to be honest with you — in this case, about who wrote the words on our site. Plagiarism, much less copying unchecked facts from Wikipedia or other sources, is an act of disrespect to the reader. We are deeply embarrassed and sorry to have misled you. Benny’s editors — I, Katherine Miller, John Stanton, Shani Hilton, and McKay Coppins — bear real responsibility…
BuzzFeed started seven years ago as a laboratory for content. Our writers didn’t have journalistic backgrounds and weren’t held to traditional journalistic standards, because we weren’t doing journalism. But that started changing a long time ago.
Whether what BuzzFeed does today is “journalism” is open to interpretation. Smith was apparently stolen away by BuzzFeed from Politico to add respectability and impose some form of journalistic standards. Though what those standards are exactly remains elusive.
Smith has publicly stated both that he “hates advocacy journalism” and that the goal of BuzzFeed and new media generally should be to do “deep original reporting.” A phrase Smith mentioned in a speech at the New York Press Club Foundation in 2013 as well as in his initial defense of Johnson, whom he called “one of the web’s deeply original writers.”
Smith claimed at the New York Press Club speech that BuzzFeed’s goal was to present “get sccops, to do deep original reporting, smart analysis.” According to Smith, BuzzFeed had other goals in mind “we have been investing in, and what – what we find successful, is, you know, is hiring great reporters to go out and get stories and take things that are not yet on the internet and put them on the internet, essentially.” Not there yet.