News organizations seeking to publish disputed information have a simple balancing act in front of them. Weigh the evidence for both sides and make a call on whether to publish the allegations at hand.
Today’s BuzzFeed story charging that Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney spray-tans before “major speeches, debates, interviews, and other events that have a chance of getting wide TV coverage” is just such a case. Here's how the evidence breaks down on the Romney spray-tan front:
Evidence in favor of spray-tan allegations:
*One “knowledgeable source.”
*Mass conjecture on social media.
*Speculation by spray-tanning experts.
Evidence against spray-tanning allegations:
*Airtight denial from Romney campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul.
*Denial from a makeup artist who worked on Romney prior to an appearance on Univision in September at which he looked particularly rusty:
“When he walked in, I remember thinking, ‘Wow this is tanner than I thought he was,’ but I think he’s just been outside a lot lately for his campaign,” Lazz Rodriguez told Univision afterward. “It was definitely a real tan.”
For the purposes of journalistic accounting, that’s one anonymous source for a spray-tanning Romney vs. two on-the-record sources against a spray-tanning Romney. To the credit of BuzzFeed, all the evidence-to-the-contrary gets presented to the reader within the story’s four corners. To the discredit of BuzzFeed, it published the story in the face of that evidence.
Romney has battled allegations of inauthenticity for months, a dynamic that makes the spray-tan piece particularly radioactive. If you’re going to allege that a man who could be the free world’s leader in abeyance uses modernity’s cheesiest cosmetic technique, you need more than just one ghostly source.
When I asked BuzzFeed Editor Ben Smith about the sourcing, he responded with the anthem of the defensive journalist: “Story speaks for itself.” It sure does. Poorly.