January 10, 2017

As CNN reported on a private intelligence report claiming that Russia has dirt on President-elect Donald Trump Tuesday night, BuzzFeed published the basis of the report, a 35-page dossier, online.

Both CNN and BuzzFeed pointed out that the documents have been circulating since at least October and that its claims are unverified.

Related teaching: Sources, Verification and Credibility

BuzzFeed Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith explained his choice to publish the dossier in a memo to the newsroom Tuesday, arguing the decision reflects “the job of reporters in 2017.”

That’s certainly what Wikileaks does. But publishing an entirely unvetted document is a significant departure from the way editors of most significant publications would define the role of reporting.

Sure, editors everywhere get queasy when they consider withholding information from the public. But historically, when editors have wrestled with this challenge, they agonized over information reporters had already vetted.

Here are some sentences I wish Smith had included in his note:

“Here’s what we are doing to verify or debunk the claims…”

“Here’s a list of the people that helped us identify the harm we might cause in publishing this…”

“Here are the most important facts we’ve already independently verified…”

At least one other organization took the opposite approach. The Lawfare Blog said it was in possession of the documents but opted not to publish them because their allegations were unproven.

“First, we have no idea if any of these allegations are true,” wrote Lawfare staffers Quinta Jurecic, Susan Hennessey and Benjamin Wittes. “Yes, they are explosive; they are also entirely unsubstantiated, at least to our knowledge, at this stage. For this reason, even now, we are not going to discuss the specific allegations within the document.”

Other news organizations, such as The New York Times and The Daily Beast, described the allegations without publishing the document in full. Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet defended that decision, saying that the newspaper is “not in the business of publishing things we can’t stand by.”

Critics will probably say that BuzzFeed’s decision to publish the document had more to do with asserting its own relevance than it did with public-spirited reporting. And BuzzFeed’s retort would likely be that the public deserves to see a report that hundreds of political insiders are talking about.

But the act of publishing the dossier in its entirety isn’t journalism. Vetting the document and determining its veracity? That’s the work of journalists in 2017, or any other year.

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Kelly McBride is a journalist, consultant and one of the country’s leading voices on media ethics and democracy. She is senior vice president and chair…
Kelly McBride

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