Donald Trump and journalist ethics

I had a weird media training session yesterday. Not that the people involved were weird, they were perfectly normal and pleasant. The weird thing was that part of my brief is to tell people how the press works (you won’t find that a surprise).

And part of this is ethics, including the bit that says you don’t run a story unless you have two independent and reliable sources corroborating it. That’s fundamental to the way I’ve always operated.

Yesterday, however, was different. Yesterday things had changed. Because Donald Trump.

Buzzfeed and ethics

To put it another way: Buzzfeed had published a complete dossier on Donald Trump, who is – whatever you think of him – president elect of the USA. It contained sexual and financial allegations that I’m not going to repeat.

And the reason I’m not going to repeat them is that they are, by Buzzfeed’s admission, completely unverified. It even added that they may be unverifiable. Ever.

The idea, the organisation said, was to allow Americans (as if it hadn’t known the story would go worldwide) to make up their own minds.

So let’s get this straight: someone has written a dossier on a public figure, they’ve sent it in or it’s been leaked to a publisher and that publisher, instead of putting it through any scrutiny, has put it into the public domain without a shred of evidence other than the document itself. The idea that people will make up their minds based on an impartial assessment is difficult to take; my own belief is that they will believe whatever reinforces their original opinion of the man (that’s an instinct rather than something for which I have any research).

What next?

I could write a dossier now. It could say Theresa May shouldn’t be leader of the Conservative Party because she is secretly married to Jeremy Corbyn. It’s rubbish of course, but would Buzzfeed publish it?

Suppose it did. Very few people would believe it and if they were asked, of course both parties would rubbish the reports. Can you be sure, though, that there would be no wagging tongues – nobody at all would turn around and say there’s no smoke without fire, something must be going on, or other cliches – not because the idea is credible but because it suggests politicians are “up to something”?

I have no idea whether or not Donald Trump did any of those things in the unsubstantiated dossier. I can’t stand the man or what he stands for and I wish he would go away (file under “not going to happen”). I get that he has used fake news often enough himself, claiming Obama founded Isis (a ridiculous and outright lie) and that the same president was born in Kenya.

But journalists are supposed to be more diligent. Nobody deserves to have unsubstantiated muck thrown at them so people can make up their own minds. Wednesday and yesterday were bad days for Donald Trump; they weren’t that great for journalism either.


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