Is BuzzFeed’s deletion of articles an ethical lapse or the growing pains of a new-media entity?

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Unless you pay close attention to new-media inside baseball or the ongoing spat between Gawker and BuzzFeed, you might have missed the news that the latter appears to have deleted thousands of old articles from its database — at least 4,000 according to an investigation of sorts by Gawker, which inferred the loss by looking at the number of articles attributed to some of the site’s main writers. BuzzFeed founder Jonah Peretti has told Slate that they were deleted because they were created when the site was an experimental lab for media, and no longer meet the journalistic standards it wants to uphold. But is that a valid explanation?

This isn’t an academic question — or at least, not entirely academic. BuzzFeed just closed a $50-million financing round courtesy of the hot Silicon Valley venture fund run by Netscape founder Marc Andreessen, giving it a theoretical market value of about $850 million, and that makes it one of the most highly-valued new-media companies in the world. It is adding dozens of reporters, and clearly has ambitions to become a major media player.

That desire to become a more serious or influential media entity appears to be behind the deletion of old articles, some of which Peretti suggested were more “experimental” than others. Based on some of the debate within the media-sphere about the move, many of BuzzFeed’s critics seem to assume that some proportion of those pieces involved outright plagiarism and/or the kind of poor sourcing that the site was routinely criticized for, even before the recent scandal that saw writer Benny Johnson fired for acts of plagiarism. Here’s what Peretti said:

“[The deleted posts were] technically broken, not sourced to our current standards, not worth improving or saving because the content isn’t very good.”

Is BuzzFeed a media co. or a tech startup?

What’s interesting about Peretti’s response is that it doesn’t sound like the kind of argument you would get from a traditional media entity, or even a new-media site run by journalists — and that makes sense, because Peretti isn’t a journalist. Instead, it’s the kind of justification you would get from a startup, which is more or less what BuzzFeed is (or was). In other words, the site tried some things, they didn’t work and don’t really fit with where the company is headed now. As Peretti put it:

“If you look at that era of BuzzFeed through the lens of newspaper or magazine journalism, you would say [deleting those posts] was a strange decision. We just didn’t and don’t look at that period of BuzzFeed as being a journalistic enterprise.”

The problem is that BuzzFeed clearly wants to be seen as a journalistic enterprise now, and in journalism you just don’t do that. Nothing is ever supposed to be deleted, even if it no longer serves any real purpose — but then, journalists also aren’t typically that good at experimenting in the first place. Peretti admits that he could have handled the process better, and been more forthcoming about the fact that stories were going to be deleted. He acknowledged making mistakes on Twitter, and said that the site has experienced “growing pains.”

Evolving, or trying to hide something?

Some of those growing pains Peretti mentions likely involved the kind of poor sourcing that others have catalogued over the years, including taking images from Imgur (the main photo-sharing site for Reddit and other viral-content sites) and not properly attributing them. To be fair to BuzzFeed, however, even finding who originally uploaded an image is a difficult task — and in some cases impossible. Reddit recently issued some new “etiquette” rules about attributing content, and some pointed out that many Reddit users do a pretty poor job of attribution.

So if BuzzFeed decided to delete some articles that no longer meet the standards it is trying to live up to, is that a big deal, or just another step in the evolution of a new-media entity? During a debate on Twitter about that question, JK Trotter of Gawker said this behavior showed that BuzzFeed was ethically compromised. Craig Silverman, who writes the Regret The Error column at Poynter, said deleting articles should only be done in extreme cases, and the Poynter Institute has noted that sites like BuzzFeed should be as transparent as possible about why they are doing it.

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A reputation clean-up project

My question is, if some or all of these articles were the typical BuzzFeed listicles of goofy images pulled from Imgur or Reddit with questionable sourcing, why is it necessarily a bad thing for the site to remove them? Some seem to be arguing that by trying to hide the evidence of this behavior, BuzzFeed is committing an egregious journalistic or ethical sin, but is that really true? We’re not talking about admitting errors in New York Times articles that led to a Pulitzer Prize here, as the newspaper recently did about some articles from the 1930s.

Instead, many of the pieces BuzzFeed deleted were likely the equivalent of comic strips or horoscopes or the advice column in a newspaper — in other words, the kind of ephemera that fills out the spaces in between the “serious” content. Is it really a huge journalistic crime if some of that disappears? If BuzzFeed was trying to avoid legal action from Reddit or Imgur users for poor sourcing, then maybe I could see it, but is that a realistic scenario? The counterpoint to this, of course — as Emily Dreyfuss of Wired noted on Twitter — is: If they were so ephemeral and irrelevant, then why bother deleting them at all?

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To me, it seems pretty obvious that BuzzFeed wants to be held to new journalistic standards, and as a result is engaging in a kind of online reputation clean-up project — the kind where you remove the embarrassing photos of you wandering around naked at Burning Man, or some other behavior that seemed like a good idea at the time, but now stands in the way of you getting that job you applied for. Is that such a bad thing? Companies have growing pains too, even media companies. Do we have to force them to maintain evidence of their failure for eternity?

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr user Stephen Brace

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