BuzzFeed’s censorship problem

April 16, 2015

Earlier this week, Gawker broke the news that BuzzFeed Beauty Editor Arabelle Sicardi has resigned from the site. She wrote a piece last week criticizing a Dove soap advertising campaign that BuzzFeed deleted and later republished at the direction of Editor in Chief Ben Smith. Her resignation is the latest chapter in the evolving “DoveGate” scandal.

It all began on April 9, when BuzzFeed deleted Sicardi’s post, saying that its “tone” conflicted with that of the section in which it was published. Smith then restored it after a flurry of media criticism accused him of pandering to Unilever, which owns Dove and has placed major ad buys on BuzzFeed. In Smith’s mea culpa, he admitted that he “blew it.”

While the apology satisfied some critics, others saw the flip-flop as a stain on BuzzFeed’s credibility. Now, as the internal memo announcing Sicardi’s resignation circulates the web, some critics view what’s going on at BuzzFeed as symptomatic of a media landscape that’s increasingly tied to advertising revenue. Even though BuzzFeed’s model seems to be thriving—it was recently valued at $850 million, with investments pouring in—advertiser pressure may have been overwhelming enough to prompt the site to “blow up its own editorial guide in order to delete a post about a soap ad.”

Whatever motivated it, the decision to delete Sicardi’s post, and her subsequent resignation, speaks to the question of who holds the power to decide what a publication says—advertisers or editors—one arising more often and made all the more complex by digital news’ increasing reliance on ads that look like stories.

To Victor Pickard, a professor at the Annenberg School of Communication, “the Dove episode stands out not only for its overt censorship, but also for how the increasingly cozy relationship between advertisers and news organizations can encourage less obvious forms of self-censorship, and for how editorial decisions can distort public discourse,” he wrote by email. “As the distinctions between advertising and news operations continue to blur, we can expect more of these controversies in the future.”

One Twitter user put it more succinctly, coining an ominous catch-phase in the process:

If the word “era” seems overly dramatic, then consider the conflicts around censorship and the advertising model that have cropped up in the last few months. In February, long-time political commentator Peter Oborne resigned from the Telegraph after accusing his editors of suppressing stories that reflected badly on its advertisers, specifically HSBC and Tesco. “We frequently hear about the potential dangers to press freedom from state regulation. But an equal, perhaps greater, danger comes from corporate advertisers,” Peter Wilby wrote in the New Statesman.

Similar debates have played out around Google AdSense, which has been accused of wielding too much power over the shape and scope of the news, and over the images we see. In an article for American Conservative, Kelley Vlahos described how AdSense asked Daniel McCarthy, the magazine’s editor, “that its ads be removed from a January 2012 story featuring a commentary by this author that included a photograph of U.S. soldiers urinating on Afghan corpses, as well as a photograph of abuses that had occurred at the Abu Ghraib prison during the Iraq War (specifically, the infamous photo of Pfc. Lynndie England dragging an Iraqi by a leash).” Publishing such photos raises murky, moral questions—ones that an advertiser may not want to be associated with—but that’s not Vlahos’ point. Her point is freedom of speech: For a news organization that depends on advertising revenue to survive, the threat of losing that revenue can be a powerful censor.

Vlahos continues: “‘There’s a chilling effect here,’ McCarthy says, getting to the heart of journalists’ obligation to report the news, including disturbing images that the public needs to see. A corporate gatekeeper that treats news like offensive or ‘adult’ content risks stifling free speech.”

The pressure to generate traffic can be another kind of muzzle. Timothy Karr, a senior director of strategy at Free Press, said that he hears many war stories from journalists about the increasing pressure to create clickable stories that drive traffic to advertisers. “A lot of them will say, ‘I’m there to write a good story, to ferret out the facts, and not to act as a marketing associate for my news organization,” Karr said. “It’s only a small step from there to this issue of censorship. At what point does the business interest drive what gets covered? And, as in the case we’re seeing here, what gets taken down?”

“The firewall that used to exist between the marketing office and the newsroom doesn’t really exist in a lot of these offices,” Karr continued. “I think that in a lot of ways it is a really serious concern. If the goal is to dress up advertising as news, and if there’s a revenue model behind that that’s successful, it’s only a matter of time before the so-called firewall dissolves completely.”

BuzzFeed has made efforts to keep that firewall firm. In the wake of allegations of plagiarism and a report that the site had made 4,000 posts “quietly disappear,” the company posted new editorial standards in January. Tweaks for digital-age reporting aside—including one prohibiting snapping selfies with celebrities—the standards are in keeping with time-honored newsroom values, including bans on paying sources for interviews, sending subjects questions in advance of an interview, and deleting stories because of their editorial content. Now, with the deletion of Sicardi’s post, and the deletion of a second post in March, critics are questioning just how firm that firewall is—which is significant, as BuzzFeed’s financial success makes it seem like one of the great white hopes for journalism.

Karr is uncertain whether or not BuzzFeed will emerge from DoveGate with its credibility intact. “They seem to be serious about doing hard reporting because they’re hiring seasoned journalists, but now that they’ve taken down editorial content—that content seems to have been censored by an advertiser—that certainly sets that effort back.” And yet past ethical missteps didn’t stop Andreessen Horowitz from investing $50 million in the company last summer, and site reporters have gone on to do good, hard-hitting reporting just as The New York Times, The Washington Post, 60 Minutes, The New Republic, and many other media outlets besieged by scandal have done. BuzzFeed’s advantage lies in its youth—in its plea that it’s learning as it grows. In the meanwhile, nothing drives traffic quite like a scandal.

Damaris Colhoun is CJR’s digital correspondent covering the media business. A reporter at large in New York, Colhoun has also written for The Believer, The New York Times, The Guardian, and Atlas Obscura. Find her on Twitter @damarisdeere.