Home Blog PR Buzzfeed’s coverage of Justine Sacco story: An ethical issue?

Buzzfeed’s coverage of Justine Sacco story: An ethical issue?


In case you missed it, the internet was home to a strange scene last Friday. IAC PR director, Justine Sacco posted an offensive tweet (which has since been deleted, along with her Twitter account) and was then turned over to what many have described as “lynch mob” mentality on Twitter and other social media sites.

You can read the original Buzzfeed post here from Friday, and the follow-up (yes, there needs to be a follow-up, of course, here)–as well as the Valleywag post that tipped off Buzzfeed in the first place.

Buzzfeed Sacco

I’m not going to weigh in on Sacco’s behavior today–as with my stance on sharing political and religious views on the internet, I will not share any opinion.

But, I WOULD like to talk about Buzzfeed’s role in this mess, because I think that IS worth discussing.

Along with everyone else, I have observed Buzzfeed’s meteoric rise to popularity (85 million people visited the site in Aug.) the last couple years. But, I have also witnessed Buzzfeed starting to act and talk more like a mainstream media outlet (by hiring Pulitzer winning journalists, for example).

But, despite those laudable actions, it’s “stories” like this that just can’t allow me take Buzzfeed seriously. Let’s face it–they are what they are, a list machine. A click engine. A site designed to generate as many clicks and social shares as possible. I mean, isn’t that what the two stories they posted about Sacco were designed to do?

Buzzfeed wants to be considered a mainstream media outlet on par with the New York Times, Washington Posts and Chicago Tribunes of the world? Well, first they need to start BEHAVING like a mainstream outlet.

And, they could start by better adhering to the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics. Let’s take a look at how they did on the Sacco stories (because again, they ran two of them in the last three days on this “huge” story):

“Journalists should be honest, fair and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information.”

Right off the bat, Buzzfeed’s in trouble. Look at the subhead in it’s initial story. It reads: “Justine Sacco is at the center of a massive Twitter storm after apparently joking that white people can’t get AIDS.”

Pay close attention to the word “apparently.” When they posted the article, had they bothered to check with Sacco to confirm her intent? They had only said they had reached out to Sacco (while she was flying over the Atlantic, from what I can tell) and would post her comment when reached.

The code also states that journalists should: “Diligently seek out subjects of news stories to give them the opportunity to respond to allegations of wrongdoing.” Did Buzzfeed really do that in this situation? I’m not so sure…

“Identify sources whenever feasible. The public is entitled to as much information as possible on sources’ reliability.”

This is the one that really gets me. Instead of using credible “sources” in its story, Buzzfeed turned to Twitter and uncovered the most pointed and attacking tweets. They quoted and featured tweets from such venerable, well-known and reliable sources as: @kid_purdy @steenfox @martinsiele and @agendawakeup. Pretty much the same people AP would quote in a story, right? What about these people’s credibility? What about their backgrounds and behaviors? Had Buzzfeed done any digging as to those folks before publishing their tweets?

“Ethical journalists treat sources, subjects and colleagues as human beings deserving of respect.”

This is another direct quote from SPJ’s code of ethics. Did Buzzfeed live up to this guideline? Even though Sacco’s initial tweet was unusually harsh and offensive, does that mean she deserves the ridicule of a “mainstream media outlet” like Buzzfeed?

“Show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage.”

Again, did Buzzfeed show any compassion toward Sacco? They did report a bunch of facts–no question. But then, in my view, they went a step further. The tone and decisions Buzzfeed made in both the initial story and follow-up may suggest exactly that …

What do you think? Should Buzzfeed really be considered a mainstream media outlet? Or, do you agree with me that they have a bit of work to do (especially in the ethical arena) before they can be considered in that vein?



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