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Did BuzzFeed Go Too Far in Publishing a Salacious, Unverified Report About Donald Trump?

The post heard 'round the world

BuzzFeed, unlike many publications who chose otherwise, decided to release the unverified documents. Getty Images, BuzzFeed

On Tuesday evening, BuzzFeed chose to publish 35 pages of documents about President-elect Donald Trump.

Those documents contain, as BuzzFeed reported, "memos written over a period of months, [including] specific, unverified and potentially unverifiable allegations of contact between Trump aides and Russian operatives, and graphic claims of sexual acts documented by the Russians."

The online publisher clearly stated in its post, written by three of its top investigative reporters with help from its data collection team, that these claims were all unsubstantiated and unverified. 

Other U.S. media outlets, including CNN and Mother Jones, published teasers of the content but not the entire dossier. NBC, for one, published information from the report two days before Trump was even briefed on the documents.

Not only do the documents, which are still not proven to be true, contain allegations that the Russian government worked with Trump or his team to throw the election in his favor, they also discuss explicit blackmail material Russia allegedly has on Trump, referred to as "kompromat."

Now, many are questioning whether publishing the information was the right move. On one hand: some journalists claim the packet was swirling around Washington as early as November, and was sent to President Barack Obama and Trump last week in separate security briefings. On the other, news outlets haven't been able to confirm the veracity of the report. 

Trump, soon after the allegations went public, tweeted that the claims were "fake news" and tantamount to a "political witch hunt."

He later linked to a news story from a website whose editor-in-chief is Laura Ingraham, a right-leaning commentator.

Trump also posed the question: "Are we living in Nazi Germany?"

A side note in this Shakespearean plot is that NBC now reports Trump received the written summary, but no one verbally briefed him, raising the question "did he see it?"

Was bringing these documents to the public the responsible decision for BuzzFeed's news section? Was it worth risking the reputation of BuzzFeed News?

"This may go down as a step too far," Rick Edmonds, Poynter's media business analyst, told Adweek. "Obviously there's a high level of interest to the documents, but because they're unverified, that's some treacherous ground."

BuzzFeed's post, published at 6:20 p.m. Tuesday, has received almost 3 million page views in nearly 17 hours.

"If 99 out of 100 outlets decide not to publish these in full, odds are there will be one organization that decides to do it," Edmonds said. "The released documents are a lot less than what most would consider to be solidly reported."

A blog post written by Poynter's ethicist, Kelly McBride, said "the act of publishing the dossier in its entirety isn't journalism." Her post was written in response to a staff email sent by BuzzFeed's editor-in-chief Ben Smith last night.

Here's Smith's email:

"We have always erred on the side of publishing," Smith wrote.

McBride suggested BuzzFeed should have detailed how it's vetting the information.

"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," said McBride in her post. "And BuzzFeed's retort would likely be that the public deserves to see a report that hundreds of political insiders are talking about."

This morning, at the start of Trump's first news conference since July, 2015, incoming director of communications Sean Spicer called out BuzzFeed and CNN for their "sad and pathetic attempt to get clicks," and referred to BuzzFeed as a "left wing blog."

Later in that same press conference, Trump denied a question from a BuzzFeed News Reporter, claiming the site was a "failing pile of garbage" and called the reporter "fake news" while also berating Jim Acosta of CNN.

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