Everyone’s favorite go-to website when they want to pass time and/or fuel an unhealthy addiction to pop culture listicles and quizzes, is BuzzFeed. Recently, the website has found itself embroiled in controversy over its editorial standards. BuzzFeed’s only kind of advertising is native advertising and so far – though some may argue this – its editorial and native posts have been as distinct as Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen.
However, on April 18, Gawker reported that BuzzFeed had launched an internal review of any posts that its editors or writers had deleted from the site since January 2012. The review was initiated after the site received harsh criticism following the deletion of certain posts in April and March 2015. In early April, BuzzFeed deleted a post by its writer Arabelle Sicardi criticizing Dove’s latest “Real Beauty” campaign. The deleted post was replaced by the line: “We pulled this post because it is not consistent with the tone of BuzzFeed Life.” On the same day, editor-in-chief Ben Smith tweeted an image of the internal letter sent out by Peggy Wand, editorial director of BuzzFeed Life and Emily Fleischaker, editor of BuzzFeed Food. The letter says, “We have never had to pull a post before” and that “when we approach charged topics like body image and feminism, we need to show not tell.” However, a day later, the post was reinstated with an update at the top stating: “This post was inappropriately deleted amid an ongoing conversation about how and when to publish personal opinion pieces on BuzzFeed. The deletion was in violation of our editorial standards and the post has been reinstated.” Interestingly, Sicardi resigned on April 13 and made it public through her tweet, accompanied by a sassy GIF of Rihanna: “My formal statement on my leaving BuzzFeed: It’s been real.”
While this incident seems to reflect a fair bit of conflict and ambiguity about BuzzFeed’s editorial policies and internal decisions, it is not an isolated incident. In 2014, BuzzFeed had deleted more than thousands of older posts due to reasons varying from plagiarizing to lack of relevancy. At the time of the Dove post, Gawker wrote that “the site has a documented history of disappearing less-than-positive content on behalf of Unilever – whose suite of brands have placed major ad buys on BuzzFeed.” However, according to a BuzzFeed executive, Dove hasn’t advertised on the site since October 2013, though the ads – or sponsored articles – are still live on the site.
Earlier in March, one of BuzzFeed’s staff writers posted an article titled: “Why Monopoly is the Worst Game in the World, and What You Should Play Instead.” Just a day later, the post was deleted. The URL instead redirected to a page that said: “This post was removed at the request of the author.” In other news, BuzzFeed and toy manufacturer Hasbro announced a joint marketing campaign to celebrate Monopoly’s 80th anniversary on February 13. Since then, the same page says: “An inappropriately deleted post was redirected to this URL. You can read that post here.” Clicking on “here” takes you to the original post, which has been reinstated carrying the same update as the one in Sicardi’s Dove article.
Finally, on April 10, editor-in-chief Smith tweeted: “Appreciate the criticism. We just reinstated two posts and I sent this note to staffers.” The tweet is accompanied by a picture of the internal memo (see image on top), which starts with three words an editor should never have to say: “I blew it.” That would have been a nice and sweet ending to a long and complicated story, but, unfortunately for BuzzFeed, that wasn’t the case.
Gawker goes on to mention several such instances where posts have been deleted – many of which were related to brands advertising on the website. One of BuzzFeed’s writers, Mark Duffy, who goes by the nickname Copyranter, took to Gawker to complain about BuzzFeed’s editorial policies – or lack thereof – in an article titled: “Top 10 Best Ever WTF OMG Reasons BuzzFeed Fired Me, LOL!” In the article, he says that Smith made him delete a 2013 post criticizing Axe body spray’s objectification of women due to pressure from Axe’s parent company Unilever, which is – no points for guessing – an advertiser on the website.
The internal review mentioned at the beginning of this article was conducted by BuzzFeed News’ deputy managing editor Annie-Rose Strasser. The results of the review were sent out by Smith in an internal memo, which is published in full on Gawker’s website. The preliminary findings state that a total of 1,112 posts were deleted between January 2012 and January 2015, which is when the standards guide was published. Of these, only three were pulled due to “advertiser complaints”. The review also mentions a part of the standards guide pertaining to editorial content about ads running of BuzzFeed: “We don’t write about ads that are running on BuzzFeed unless they are genuinely newsworthy. Appreciation buzz posts celebrating a fun or cool ad are fine, as are posts critical of ads – but that content should not be about ads BuzzFeed’s business side has created.”
While BuzzFeed attempts to raise its editorial integrity standards, its own standards guide distorts its integrity by placing limitations on the editorial freedom of its writers. In various instances, Smith and other editors at BuzzFeed have mentioned that writers need to limit their personal opinions and focus on things that are really newsworthy. For instance, in January 2014, Smith sent an email to writer Samir Mezrahi regarding the deletion of his post, titled “These Brands Are Going To Bombard Your Twitter Feed on Super Bowl Sunday.” While Smith mentions in the email that it seemed more like a stunt and “just wasn’t news, or interesting,” what is interesting is that the email’s subject reads: “writing about BuzzFeed ad campaigns on BuzzFeed” and the first line itself says: “So I just killed your post on the Twitter feeds – and I realized that what I’m really uncomfortable with is your engaging marketing campaigns that are on BuzzFeed.” This uncanny focus on “news” might come as a tall expectation from a media publisher that popularized cat memes and has an entire section and Facebook page dedicated to quizzes ranging from “How Much High School Science Can You Remember?” to “Can You Guess A Person’s Name From Just Looking At Their Face?”
Digital media has made the consumption of content free and easy. It has also popularized online media outlets, but it has changed the way these media outlets make money. Advertising has gone from worrying about getting enough eyeballs to worrying about getting the right eyeballs. And this could cost the media industry its integrity – and readers their trust – as in the case for BuzzFeed.
The entire conversation around BuzzFeed’s questionable editorial policies and integrity might be bad for the website, but it could generate positive effects for journalism, a word that’s rapidly changing, evolving and maybe even losing its meaning, as digital media offers an easy and convenient way for editors to write, delete and replace things as they see fit; with no real accountability.
Note: All content in this article is based on research from various international media outlets including Gawker’s in-depth analysis by writer J.K. Trotter.
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