Buzzfeed Fails at Journalism

Back when Buzzfeed pulled their hatchet job on Matthew Ingram of The Oatmeal, I started writing a post wondering what the agenda behind the story was. Their approach and the ensuing backlash really appeared to be primarily motivated by the fact that their approach to journalism to start with a narrative and weave facts around it. In that case, the writer attempted to make the case that Ingram was a sell-out, that his comic were designed specifically to draw page views and that his work was dishonest (he was accused of GASP being a Republican). Unfortunately for Buzzfeed, in that case, the facts of the story fell apart, as the web profile attributed to Matthew didn’t belong to him, and thus, so did the narrative

Well, looks like they’re at it again; this time, the narrative is about liberals and guns, and the problem is not incorrect facts included, but contradictory facts excluded. The reporters mentioned included lots more nuanced information about their relationship to guns and gun control, all of which was dropped from the final story seeking to paint liberal attachment to guns as a new phenomenon. Fundamentally, the main character in the story doesn’t consider himself liberal, nor a gun nut, finding gun ownership “reprehensible.”

So now we have two big stories blowing up in their face. It certainly doesn’t bode well for the future of the organization, given that they’re developing their long form journalism division after building initially on ‘listicles.’ It’s not all bad: this piece on Google Reader was actually quite interesting and informative, and the only reason I don’t question the narrative is that it’s something I’ve read elsewhere.

So far, this type of approach has blown up in their faces quite spectacularly (or at least it appeared so to me as an internet denizen). I think a lot of that has to do with both their lack of ability as well as the nature of the internet.

Obviously, this type of thing happens in major media outlets as well, but it doesn’t happen as often nor does it result in the type of backlash Buzzfeed got. Part of it has to be the type of writers they’re hiring; I can imagine going from writing like a blogger to writing like a journalist requires a change in expectations from your work. The speculation engaged in on a blog would probably never fly as a real journalistic effort.

Additionally, because those who were mentioned or targeted have web presences, they’re able to respond, quickly and publicly, and those responses get disseminated as widely as the original stories. When your targets and readership are as embedded in digital as Buzzfeed’s, they have to be even more careful, as the response is often swift and unforgiving. When you’re primarily getting your media from a handful of old-media sources, you’re less likely to see the negative responses to a particular story. When your media comes from your Twitter and Facebook feed, you’ll see it.

The other part of it, though, is that in mainstream media, the prevailing narratives are far more subtle than the ones proffered by Buzzfeed in those two pieces. The prevailing narratives of mainstream media tend to be cultural, Western-centric, and pro-capitalism of various shades. The narratives are far less noticeable by the average reader because it’s typically confirming a narrative they already have about themselves and the way the world works.

Obviously, a story contains new information, provides a sub narrative of something happening with your world, and that’s at least partially the charge of journalism as a craft: to provide new information or new ways of thinking about old subjects. They’re still in the process of figuring out how to provide new takes while still sitting within major narratives. Those two stories opposed the prevailing narratives spectacularly, and they did so primarily by skewing the facts to fit that narrative. When Buzzfeed’s narratives do this without being obvious, that’s when you know they’ve made it.

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