Earlier this week close to a dozen tornadoes tore through the Dallas-Fort Worth area of Texas, leaving behind serious destruction and a trail of remarkable video and photos.
The visual and viral masters at BuzzFeed were quick to pull together a post outlining “25 Unbelievable Pictures Of The Tornadoes That Hit The Dallas/Fort Worth Area.”
Unfortunately, as detailed by The Guardian, three of the photos they used were problematic. One was Photoshopped and two were from different storms. BuzzFeed removed them from the story and later added this text to the bottom of the post:
Note: Three pictures whose origins we were unable to verify, and which may have been of other disasters, have been removed. H/t to @SamJB for pointing them out.
This error and eventual correction may in the past have been noticed by some BuzzFeed readers. But now that the site is hiring notable online journalists and pushing ahead with political coverage and other new journalistic ventures it appears to be attracting new scrutiny from surprising corners.
After the incorrect images were pointed out on Twitter by a journalism teacher at the University of North Texas and editor-in-chief Ben Smith took note and removed them, conservative commentator Michelle Malkin used Twitter to raise questions about the level of transparency at BuzzFeed.
The full exchange was captured in a great Storify put together by The Guardian’s Ruth Spencer. (It’s embedded below.)
Malkin noted, correctly, that a correction wasn’t added to the post at the same time the photos were removed:
— Michelle Malkin (@michellemalkin) April 4, 2012
From there, things became somewhat politicized, as Malkin argued that “if a right-leaning site just yanked the photos, we’d catch holy hell.” Regardless of politics, Malkin was right that if you delete mistaken content you need to add a correction. Smith later responded to The Guardian to explain the process used to remove and correct the photos:
Ben Smith from Buzzfeed has been in touch to say that it removed the photos in question from the post immediately after the error was pointed out; and then added the clarification at the end of its post a short time after that. “We corrected the error extremely fast, as we always do, and we were very grateful to the person who pointed it out for doing so,” he said.
I also emailed Smith a few questions but haven’t yet heard back. Smith replied to my additional questions by email:
I would note that the Guardian, unlike you, didn’t reach out to me, and had to update its story (and I think they changed the subhead, though I’m not sure) after we spoke. Glass houses and all.
I do think the basic point of how you verify social media sources is something interesting that we wrestle with. But if there was a timespan — it really can’t have been more than a few minutes, and we dealt with this very very fast — where the photos had changed but there wasn’t a correction, that was just a glitch, and not so interesting.
I honestly don’t know what scrutiny was like before I got here. I’ve always expected and benefitted from a ton of scrutiny, and certainly welcome it. Matt and I were grateful to the guy who pointed out the mislabeled photos, and we said so. Social media sources can be wrong (as of course can official sources) but the self-correcting mechanism of the social web is a powerful thing, and I’ve always appreciated it.
As BuzzFeed expands to do more journalism, they will likely only encounter more scrutiny of their work, and how they produce and correct their reporting. I’m speculating, but I doubt Malkin would have paid as much attention if BuzzFeed wasn’t putting a lot of effort into covering the 2012 campaign.
It was good to see Smith respond quickly to fix the photos, and hopefully BuzzFeed has a policy in place that requires a correction be added right away when an error is fixed. I’d also recommend they label a correction a “correction,” rather than the vague “note” that was used in this case.
Here’s The Guardian’s Storify: