Neetzan Zimmerman, editor in chief of Whisper, on journalism: “Nowadays it’s not important if a story’s real, the only thing that really matters is whether people click on it” (The Daily Show, July 30, 2014). Whisper is an anonymous app that BuzzFeed and others have been using to source stories, some of them on serious matters. The company has $60 million dollars in funding and is backed by Sequoia Capital, among others. As a reader, how do you feel about news crafted solely from anonymous sources? What are the implications of valuing “scoops” over facts and virality over meaningful content?
“Under the partnership, 15 BuzzFeed writers will search Whisper for possible articles. When they identify potential material, Whisper will help them find more information with access to its internal search engines. Whisper will also suggest ideas to BuzzFeed when it notices themes on its platform,” reported The New York Times.
I know what you might be thinking: who cares what BuzzFeed and The Huffington Post think? Think of BuzzFeed and you think of cats, celebrity gossip, and “if you grew up in the ’90s lists.” And The Huffington Post is a giant army of independent bloggers. Credibility immediately questionable. But it was already more serious than that for two reasons, and now for three.
Reason #1: Everything is not what it seems
BuzzFeed just raised another $50 million, reportedly valuing the website at an astonishing $850 million. Let’s put that in perspective. Remember when Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post last year? He paid $250 million. Multiply that by three then keep going.
After the capital infusion, The Economist wisely pointed out that BuzzFeed has now yet defined itself. We may think it has, but it hasn’t. BuzzFeed’s founder and CEO Jonah Peretti is still figuring that out, and he’s bringing more muscle onboard. Now exactly the type of journalists used to building a “46 Life-Changing Things That Happen at a One Direction Concert” posts.
“Mr Peretti plans to create even more buzz. His firm has been hiring more journalists, including a Pulitzer-prize winner to head its ‘investigative’ unit, and is focusing on breaking more news. He points out that legacy media firms see content creation in such a traditional way that they cannot break from the past: CBS could have invented the first 24-hour cable news channel, for example, but did not think to do it on a shoestring budget and to program so many hours of news content, he says.”
Reason #2: Anonymity is a double-edged sword
I’m anti-censorship and pro-anonymity. There are few things more dangerous, in my opinion, than muffling thoughts. To a lesser degree, I think it’s important to allow people the freedom to say things anonymously. In the US, this is often disputed. “If you can’t attach your name to something, you shouldn’t say it.” That’s not always true.
When Arianna Huffington, who I have a tremendous amount of respect for, banned anonymous comments on The Huffington Post last year, I was disappointed. In fact, I spoke out against her and wrote a post titled The Faces of Anonymity. In my opinion, allowing political dissidents, the religiously and racially persecuted, and other disadvantaged groups to freely communicate with the rest of the world, using pseudonyms, without risking exposure, outweighs any potential risks associated with letting the less enlightened have their fifteen minutes with the same security.
“Following a ‘show your face and own up to what you just said’ philosophy is not always as simple as it appears to be on the surface and does not always equate to justice. Anonymity doesn’t necessarily stem from immaturity, and a lot of the people who post anonymously are very much a part of the ‘grown-up Internet,'” I wrote.
Still feel the same way today.
(Sidenote: if The Huffington Post won’t allow people to post anonymously, why the hell are they sourcing stories anonymously?)
I don’t feel the same way about the media and anonymous sources. The media has a responsibility to verify sources before reporting. Journalists, real journalists, will go to prison before revealing their sources (see, James Risen). Anonymity can be protected while ensuring information is factual.
Reason #3: That sword is in the hands of a menace
Anonymity is at its worst when manipulated for financial gains by agents without principles.
I always do my best to attack ideas, not people, but in this particular situation, it seems impossible to separate the two.
“Nowadays it’s not important if a story’s real, the only thing that really matters is whether people click on it.”
How can you defend that statement?
With outlets like BuzzFeed gaining popularity (power) and using Whisper and the likes the source stories, journalism could be taking a serious turn for the worse.