Would it have killed BuzzFeed to wait a day, or even two days, before publishing its story about the Palestinian filmmaker?
A quick and comma-heavy one-sentence backgrounder: Last Tuesday, Oscar-nominated director Emad Burnat got delayed by U.S. customs officials at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), a situation that prompted intervention from filmmaker Michael Moore, who insufferably reported via Twitter his role in getting Burnat through the country’s intake system and claimed that the ordeal had lasted “1.5 hours,” but BuzzFeed later reported in a single-anonysourced story that the tale was “baloney” intended to promote Burnat’s film “Five Broken Cameras,” that the wait time was overblown, and so on, but then Moore and Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald attacked, saying that BuzzFeed was giving the government a megaphone to deny wrongdoing under the cover of anonymity, prompting BuzzFeed to redouble its efforts, finding a bunch of other anonymous sources who buttressed the original piece and copying a log stating that Burnat had spent 23 minutes in a particular inspection area, in turn prompting a final piece from Moore sticking to his original story and criticizing BuzzFeed (not to mention mis-rendering it as “Buzzfeed,” a la New York Times), even though he likes it.
For the purposes of this post, here’s what matters in that sequence: BuzzFeed started out with a story based on a single anonymous source on a matter of some sensitivity. Once its story got challenged, it did some more reporting.
An obvious question arises from the circumstances. Why not just roll all that additional reporting into the first piece, instead of publishing a flimsy account in need of further corroboration?
The Erik Wemple Blog posed this matter to BuzzFeed editor Ben Smith, in the form of several questions: “Why not do the firming up before printing the first iteration? Did you know there was competition and that you’d lose the exclusive? Or do you think you wouldn’t have gotten the cooperation that you folks got today without the first iteration? Or did you just think you had enough originally and so were ready to go with it?”
We were working on several fronts at the same time, and it’s always a tough call as to when you share with readers what you know and when you conceal it from them. We thought the original story was a useful and credible addition to the conversation — though obviously readers would reasonably discount an anonymous source to some degree, and we printed Moore’s full version. We thought the information from the log also advanced the story, which is why we printed it.
Real-time journalism, in other words, in which you print the information that you gather as you gather it. It’s an essential web-journo approach that works particularly well during hurricanes, for example. It’s less effective, though, in more investigative applications, such as this one, where you start with a premise from a source with a stake in the outcome. It could be bunk.
The issues here relate as much to journalistic ethics as they do to GDP. How much time, how many tweets, how many e-mail conversations could BuzzFeed have saved if it had just sat on the story a while longer?
May it not be said that BuzzFeed doesn’t know how to wait. Last year it hired an editor in charge of shepherding long-simmering projects onto the BuzzFeed site. And BuzzFeed surely knows immediacy, too. Back in October this blog chided Smith for writing an item calling the first presidential debate for Mitt Romney before the event had reached halftime. Figuring out which pieces fall in between those two poles takes some consideration.