BuzzFeed and the deletion of published material

Knowing our audience as well as I do, I’m confident that one of the pressing issues you’re all waiting to hear about is Dove soap and the challenges of female body image. (Wait! WAIT! Come back! I was kidding…) The actual story here has to do with a recent article published at BuzzFeed which dealt with the aforementioned subject. What it was about doesn’t really matter here, but suffice it to say that the author was rather critical of what Dove was doing in their promotional campaign. One possible fly in the ointment was that Dove is a subsidiary of Unilever and they are an advertiser at BuzzFeed. Oops.

Shortly thereafter, BuzzFeed editor Ben Smith yanked the article.

It’s one of the cardinal rules of journalism: Once you publish something, there’s no taking it back (at least not without a correction, and never without including the original material).

Not so at BuzzFeed.

On Thursday, the online outlet took down a post critical of Dove — whose parent company, Unilever, is a major advertiser — leaving a notice that explained, “We pulled this post because it is not consistent with the tone of BuzzFeed Life.” …

BuzzFeed Life editors Emily Fleischaker and Peggy Wang addressed the incident in an email to staff, saying the post was taken down because, “When we approach charged topics like body image and feminism, we need to show not tell.” Basically, it seems Fleischaker and Wang took exception to the post because it advanced a point of view.

Not long after, the article was back. (The timing isn’t entirely clear, but it appears that the resurrection took place after other outlets noticed it had been deleted and began making a point of it.) Editor Ben Smith came out with something of a mea culpa.

“I blew it,” Smith wrote in an email to staff. “Twice in the last couple of months, I’ve asked editors — over their better judgment and without any respect to our standards or process — to delete recently published posts from the site. Both involved the same thing: my overreaction to questions we’ve been wrestling with about the place of personal opinion pieces on our site.” Smith denied that the stories were removed because they criticized advertisers.

I’m really not an expert on how editors handle “issues of female body image” these days, but the explanation is a bit odd to say the least. You don’t need to peruse the BuzzFeed site very long to find plenty of opinion, or at least reporting which seems to show a biased preference for one angle or another on a story. And reading the original article, it clearly wasn’t any sort of hacked up hit job. The author was talking about a company which purports to support real life beauty in women rather than stereotypes of plastic, Hollywood looks but then seems to raise money off products designed to deal with that perception. Still, I can’t read Ben Smith’s mind, so who can really say.

No matter how much you object to a particular article, though, pulling it is never the answer. And there are more than a few examples of when BuzzFeed has pulled published material in the past. That’s just a Bozo no-no. Simply speaking from experience here I can assure you that I’ve published more than my fair share of bonehead material. (And our regular readers in the comment section will happily provide a litany of examples.) I’ve had to do some serious (and serial) edits on articles when I missed something, misinterpreted details or just plain got things wrong. I can’t dredge it up now but I once published an entire article here about something that happened in one European or Asian country and it actually took place in a different one. Oops.

In all those times, however, it was never suggested to me that I delete a published article. And if I had done so, I’m fairly sure I’d have been fired. You can edit the heck out of an article to make it better so long as you make a note – either in the body of the text where the change took place or at the bottom – describing what was edited. I don’t include typos in that category, but anything of substance to the facts under discussion needs to remain or be annotated to reflect the change. That’s just a given.

But BuzzFeed has apologized for this latest editorial snafu and moved on. Next time you see a list of the Ten Sexiest Men in the DC Valet Business, you’ll know it’s the real top ten.