The 'golden rule' of journalistic ethics and why Buzzfeed was wrong to publish Trump dossier

I give the odd talk to journalism students on ethics and I always start with the “golden rule” which is the basis of most world religions – and, I would say, journalistic ethics.

Treat others as you would expect to be treated yourself.

I also suggest that you don’t do anything that you wouldn’t be comfortable defending publicly before, say, a judicial inquiry.

After you’ve cleared both those hurdles, then make sure you don’t do anything which is going to lead to you being successfully sued and/or put in prison.

Buzzfeed’s publication of the Trump dossier fails in my view on the first of these grounds.

The journalistic thing to do with it is to put the allegations in detail to the Trump team and make efforts to verify them.

You don’t publish horrendously defamatory allegations based on one un-named source.

The speed with which Buzzfeed followed up the initial CNN report on this affair yesterday suggests Trump was given little time to respond.

CNN said that a two-page synopsis of the allegations had been given to Trump and Obama, but it did not go into the details.

The impression Buzzfeed’s publication was hurried is suggested by this line in its report: “The Trump administration’s transition team did not immediately respond to BuzzFeed News’ request for comment.”

That speed of publication will be difficult to justify in court if Trump does opt to sue Buzzfeed (although, under the US First Amendment – Buzzfeed may believe it is covered legally).

Some 35-pages of detailed allegations will need days, if not weeks, to investigate and respond to.

Trump may be a monster, but he also has a family who will have been hurt by the allegations in the Buzzfeed dossier. If they prove to be fabrications then that is again difficult to justify.

Several UK publications have already repeated the most sordid details of the document. Given Trump’s record for litigiousness I would suggest this is unwise, even if they are accompanied by strong denials.

There is no safety in numbers when it comes to libel and, if the most damaging details prove to be untrue I would expect Trump will sue everyone who has repeated them.

Update: Why media lawyers say Trump won’t sue.

Pictures: Reuters/Mike Segar

Comments

2 thoughts on “The 'golden rule' of journalistic ethics and why Buzzfeed was wrong to publish Trump dossier”

  1. Although I agree with Ponsford that the “golden rule” for journalism ethics should not be violated, I would disagree with his statement that journalists must at all times “treat others as you would expect to be treated yourself.” While yes, I believe this is a thoughtful way to live out your personal life, I do believe that journalists have a duty to uphold which sometimes conflicts with this self-reassuring mantra. Additionally, Ponsford is a British journalist. The journalism industry in Great Britain operates differently than the journalism industry in the United States. With the protection of the First Amendment in the United States, as evidenced by other cases in the past, Buzzfeed is able to avoid defamation charges and is right to publish since the company was not responsible for fabricating any of the stated material in the dossier. Had Ponsford took into consideration previous examples from American history and compared those instances with Buzzfeed’s actions, he would have sculpted a better argument for his article.
    Journalists are responsible for educating populations and publishing information that informs the general public about the world around us. According to the Society of Professional Journalists, “…public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. The duty of the journalist is to further those ends…”. Additionally, journalists must report the truth and often times this truth may conflict with another party’s personal interests. This is a conflict journalists must constantly face. In the publication of dossier, Buzzfeed was upholding its duty to inform the general public that the allegations exist and were circulating the journalistic community.
    Additionally, Buzzfeed is protected by The First Amendment which protects its right to free speech and open dialogue in the United States. According to U.S. law, defamation charges in the United States can only be carried out if the source of publication was aware that false statements exist in the article or item being published. Since Buzzfeed made aware that it was unsure of the validity of the allegations, it was letting its audience members know that it was not responsible for the statements made and was leaving the validity of the statements up for interpretation.
    In 1971, the United States saw the publishing of the Pentagon Papers which is similar to the release of the Buzzfeed dossier. In the final ruling of New York Times Vs. United States the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the publication although there were concerns about defamation and national security. In his article, Ponsford fails to bring up any similar cases from America’s past in order to further explain why Buzzfeed was wrong in its publication. Possibly, this is due to the fact that U.S. Supreme Court has rarely not ruled in favor of the First Amendment.
    According to the political magazine Mother Jones, “put all that together—president, credibility among the intelligence community, and widespread dissemination—and I’m not at all sure that BuzzFeed did the wrong thing.” Buzzfeed was merely publishing information that pertained to Trump, a prominent and currently “controversial” official, that I don’t personally believe should be punished for.

    I am not praising Buzzfeed’s particular actions in publishing the dossier, I just believe they it should not be punished for its actions or criticized for taking any action at all. Collectively, I can see why Ponsford may have disagreed with the overall publication of the dossier since the intentions of the publication were not clearly stated and the quickness of the publication may have come off as an attack. On the other hand though I do not think that Buzzfeed was at fault for its publication since it was merely releasing information to the general public. If Ponsford was more aware of U.S. law and provided additional examples from the past I believe his argument would have been more successful.

  2. And if the target of the ‘allegations’ has a documented history of continuously publishing lies and fabrications which involve and personally affect people and their families who can’t afford to lock legal horns with him, what then for your principled comments? The ‘target’ has no such principles, more the pity, and rides roughshod over those that do. In my view given the unique nature of the target the Buzzfeed publication and its dissemination by others is the exception that proves the rule, and is completely understandable, ethically acceptable, and a reminder to the fence-sitters that “Sooner or later, One has to take sides if one is to remain human.”

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