BuzzFeed editor Ben Smith sends memo reminding staff to refrain from bias on social media

BuzzFeed editor in chief Ben Smith sent a memo to staff Thursday reminding members of the outlet’s news team to refrain from taking “partisan stands” on social media.

The memo, which Smith provided to Business Insider in response to an inquiry, came after a reporter posted a pair of now-deleted tweets to her account during a video played before President Barack Obama’s Wednesday speech at the Democratic National Convention.

A BuzzFeed writer — not on the news team — also tweeted glowingly of Obama before his speech:

BuzzFeed’s ethics guide states that “reporters and editors should refrain from commenting in a partisan way about candidates or policy issues.”

Smith on Thursday reiterated the company’s social-media policy to his news team in a memo, which contained an emoji-filled subject line of “???????? ????.”

Here’s the full memo:

Hello BuzzFeed News (and friends),

We are entering the home stretch of an American presidential election, a time when people lose their minds even in normal years.

I’m writing to remind you about our policy on not taking partisan stands on social media, or in our coverage, for either side. You have colleagues covering this race intensely and an audience who should trust that you, and we, are as fair and accurate as you know we strive to be.

Even in an ordinary year, of course, we report aggressively on politicians’ falsehoods or behaviour. And this is an unusual year, in which one candidate has, for instance, said things that can be fairly described as bigoted. This isn’t simple terrain to navigate, and feel free to ask me or another editor if you’re not sure about something specific. We aren’t going to be fanatically patrolling Twitter, or overreacting to the odd tweet.

As a matter of more specific guidance, I’d say tone matters. Readers are entitled to trust you less if they think you’re in the tank — if you are vitriolic about a subject, or if you are celebratory.

When in doubt, the ideal journalistic posture is: ????


Smith’s memo on Thursday was not the first time he has emailed staff to discuss the outlet’s social-media guidelines.

In December, the BuzzFeed editor wrote to his editorial staff after receiving questions from employees on whether calling Trump a “liar and a racist violates our policy asking that you not to be political partisans on social media.”

“The goals of this policy (which is stricter with BuzzFeed News staff) are twofold: To preserve our readers’ confidence that we can be fair; and to not needlessly undermine the work of reporters on the beat,” Smith wrote in December. “And in that context, Trump is operating far outside the political campaigns to which those guidelines usually apply.”

He continued in his December memo: “It is, for instance, entirely fair to call him a mendacious racist, as the politics team and others here have reported clearly and aggressively: He’s out there saying things that are false, and running an overtly anti-Muslim campaign. BuzzFeed News’s reporting is rooted in facts, not opinion; these are facts.”

In the past, BuzzFeed reporters have struggled to steer away from using their social-media platforms to offer partisan or political points of view.

Last year, two editors found themselves the subject of headlines for taking sharp pro-gun control stances on Twitter following two different mass shootings.

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