Back when I was doing local reporting, I tried to take as my editorial policies ten statements from The Elements of Journalism: What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect, by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel. Amongst them, and one I think frequently finds itself shoved to the side, is the eighth principle for journalism: “It must keep the news comprehensive and proportional.”
It came to mind today, not long after reading this terrific Daily Dot piece excoriating the Internet for piling on Edward Snowden’s girlfriend (“People are calling her dumb, naive, self-involved, and insufferable … for doing nothing except living her life.”), when I discovered that Buzzfeed’s little exposé on her consisted mainly of more than a dozen photos and videos of her, mostly ones in which she is scantily clad.
Snowden’s girlfriend arguably is relevant to the story only insomuch as she can provide information or insight into Snowden himself. He’s the story here. While the content of any posts she made about him arguably are news, her relevancy ends pretty much exactly there. Sixteen or so photos or videos of her, on the other hand, even if they originally were posted online by her, are not relevant, and in no serious way can be argued as news.
(Even after I stopped doing local reporting, I’d occasionally use this very blog to call attention to those I thought were causing problems in local political circles or, say, in Whedon fandom. Would those intentions in any way have been legitimately or properly served had I posted a series of photos of the girlfriends, boyfriends, or spouses of the subjects of those posts? I don’t see how. It’s as true in the Snowden story as it would have been in those cases, regardless and in spite of its higher profile and importance.)
Proportionality is the watchword here. While it’s typically applied to the question of how much journalism covers one story versus another (for example, how a nation convinces its people to go to war, versus what the stars on the red carpet are wearing), it’s also applicable to the various elements within any particular story. Snowden is the subject of the story at hand. To plaster an article with photos of his girlfriend is entirely and inarguably out of proportion to her relevance to that story. They exist only as an exploitation aimed at generating hits — and buzz — for Buzzfeed itself.
Critics claiming that Buzzfeed is destroying journalism forget, of course, that the site did not invent exploitation as a means for generating attention. There are whole months of television news dedicated to doing precisely that.
But it’s legitimate, I would think, to suggest that this serves as a pretty stark example of how Buzzfeed’s preferred form of journalism — the bullet list copiously illustrated by photos (preferably GIFs) — sometimes dictates and defines their journalism, instead of the elements of journalism dictating and defining the form they choose for any given story.