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Letter sent on Jan 12, 2017

‘Fictional people’

I got a pitch for a story today from someone claiming to have “access to the emails of a New York same-sex couple who are relocating to Paris before Inauguration Day.” I thought that might be an interesting story, but the lack of specificity led me to wonder if the emails were hacked or otherwise illegally obtained. As I questioned the person further — who are these people, and why do you have their emails?—he finally replied: “Fictional letters, fictional people, fictional addresses, and timely as can be.”

Every so often, working journalists stumble upon little reminders that many people have no concept of what we do. Sometimes it comes at the end of a great interview, and the person says, “But you’re not gonna print that, right?” Other times readers accuse us of making things up to suit our biases. (Which is why we’re so furious when one of us does.) For me, today, it came in the form of that pitch. The writer didn’t think it was necessary to mention straightaway that this same-sex couple doesn’t really exist.

On Tuesday night, BuzzFeed published a 35-page document containing information about Donald Trump that if untrue is libelous. BuzzFeed noted the document contains some errors and pointed out no one has been able to prove or disprove any of the information contained in the document, which was allegedly prepared as opposition research by an anonymous British ex-spy. “BuzzFeed News is publishing the full document so that Americans can make up their own minds about allegations about the president-elect that have circulated at the highest levels of the U.S. government.”

I had a small debate with Mathew Ingram of Fortune magazine, who argued BuzzFeed did the right thing. “My default is transparency in all things — share all the source documents, what you know and don’t, etc.,” he wrote. In other words, let the people pick it apart. But, he added, “I wouldn’t advise doing this for anything but a very serious document from a credible source.”

In this case, however, the source was anonymous, and the document—while potentially the most serious ever produced—may be complete fiction. If you’re going to publish documents calling the president-elect of the United States a Russian mole, you’d better be right. To find that the information is fraudulent would not only be unfair to the subject (deserving as Trump may be), it would diminish the credibility of BuzzFeed and the rest of us who work for “the media.”

It is not our job to dump information into the world and let readers decide if it’s fact or fiction. Our job is to present facts and let readers decide their own opinions about them. To do otherwise is malpractice.

Here’s what else we’re following:

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That’s all for now. See you all next time,

Ben

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