It looks like the magic number was 40. BuzzFeed has decided to fire its viral politics editor, Benny Johnson, after finding that many instances of plagiarism in his work.
In a note to readers, BuzzFeed’s editor Ben Smith — who previously brushed off three examples of Johnson’s plagiarism — said the buck stopped with him and the site’s other editors:
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.
In a memo provided to FishbowlNY by BuzzFeed, Smith elaborated on the situation. You can read it below.
All,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