A note to editorial staff sent Friday evening from BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith announced that the website has parted ways with Benny Johnson – a viral politics editor – after identifying “40 instances of sentences or phrases copied, word for word, from other sites, many of them inappropriate sources in the first place.”
On Thursday, a WordPress titled “Our Bad Media” highlighted several accusations, later reported by Gawker. On Friday, several more instances were raised on the WordPress, prompting Smith to tell Poynter that BuzzFeed was currently reviewing Johnson’s work.
The below memo was shared with Fishbowl by BuzzFeed publicist Ashley McCollum.
Also, “Editor’s Note: An Apology To Our Readers,” from Smith.
From: Ben Smith
Date: July 25, 2014 at 8:50:29 PM PDT
Subject: What we’re doing about plagiarism at BuzzFeed
After a review of all of his work at BuzzFeed, we’ve decided to let Benny Johnson go.
This isn’t a decision we took lightly. Shani, Katherine, and I spent today reviewing about 500 posts. In them, we found 40 instances of sentences or phrases copied, word for word, from other sites, many of them inappropriate sources in the first place. This pattern is not a minor slip. This is a breach of faith with our readers; a violation of a basic rule of writing; and the reflection of an unserious attitude to our work that is wildly out of line with both our standards and our ambition.
The most important of these principles is that we owe our readers absolute honesty. When you write, the implication is that the words are yours; if they aren’t, you’ve tricked the reader. We are in the process of correcting and noting the plagiarism.
Today’s review has also been a reminder of how much we’ve grown. 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.
Today, we are one of the largest news and entertainment sites on the web. On the journalistic side, we have scores of aggressive reporters around the United States and the world, holding the people we cover to high standards. We must — and we will — hold ourselves to the same high standards. BuzzTeam, too, has, over the last two years, raised its game dramatically, focusing on creative and ambitious work, and increasingly careful attribution.
We, Benny’s editors, also owe our writers more: We should have caught what are now obvious differences in tone and style, and caught this very early on. We will be more vigilant in the future. We will also change our onboarding procedures to make sure that the high standards of training that come with our fellowship program extend to everyone who arrives at BuzzFeed — and particularly to those without a background in traditional journalism.
Tonight’s decision is not a knee-jerk response to outside criticism, though we are genuinely grateful to the people who helped point out instances of plagiarism. Nor is it meant as a personal condemnation: Benny at his best is a creative force, and we wish him the best. Finally, it is not a warning that you’ll be fired for a small mistake or an isolated error. We will always have a more forgiving attitude toward bold failures, innocent errors, and misfired jokes than more skittish old media organizations.
We have more responsibility now than ever now to keep raising our standards and our ambitions, and to continue getting better.
Ben, Shani, Katherine, and John