The credibility of journalism

Lili Bidwell 12 January 2017

On Tuesday, Buzzfeed released a ‘secret dossier’ containing ‘explosive and unverified allegations about Donald Trump and Russia’ (in the words of Ben Smith, editor-in-chief at Buzzfeed). The company has come under fire for its actions as some claim it has broken with ethical practice in publishing unsubstantiated allegations.

Faith in the media is hard to find in 2017, with accusations of fake news thrown around by both sides of the political spectrum. Conspiracy theories abounded in last year’s American election which led to ordinary people, for the first time, seriously taking notice. According to a Politico/Morning Consult poll conducted in October last year, 73% of Republicans questioned, believed that the election would be rigged against Donald Trump. 

When the public lose trust in the media, they lose the most powerful weapon they have against power. It is no coincidence that freedom of speech is the first amendment of the Bill of Rights in the United States; without it, all other rights cannot be upheld. When media credibility collapses, a government has free reign to do what it wants without scrutiny.

This is why it is so important that a company like Buzzfeed helps to strengthen whatever diminishing faith there may be in the media. Donald Trump’s presidency needs scrutiny; conflicts of interest, corruption, and outrageous wealth surround Trump and his cabinet choices. If the public are going to be able to stand up to this new government, the media must earn their trust. If Buzzfeed’s actions further erode that trust, it is a tragedy.

Ben Smith wrote in an email he published on Twitter attempting to justify the release: "Publishing this dossier reflects how we see the job of reporters in 2017." The documents were published so that "Americans can make up their own minds about allegations about the president-elect." While Buzzfeed has been clear that the allegations are unverified and the dossier contains mistakes, it is still dangerous for a media outlet to put its reputation on the line in this way.

Donald Trump’s characteristic response reiterated the danger of Buzzfeed’s decision. He tweeted, ‘FAKE NEWS – A TOTAL POLITICAL WITCH HUNT.’ If it turns out that the dossier is fake, Trump and his supporters can use it as evidence to dismiss all criticisms of the president-elect as lies. If the media cries wolf over every allegation, it lends credibility to those who believe Trump can do no wrong and the mainstream is out to discredit him.

The media must do everything it can to maintain its credibility in the coming years. Without it, we are powerless.