Is it ever okay for the media to publish unsubstantiated information?

Is it ever okay for the media to publish unsubstantiated information?

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BuzzFeed just published an incendiary report filled with salacious details about President-elect Donald Trump and his possible ties to Russia. The media outlet acknowledged the report was unverified and contained errors, but felt the public should have access to the same information currently circulating through the intelligence community and media circles. Others, including Trump, think it's nothing more than a smear job that endangers trust with the news industry. What do you think?

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Below is BuzzFeed editor Ben Smith's justification for publishing the entire Trump-Russia dossier. But the document opens up a host of problems in a "post-truth" world and raises real ethical concerns for journalists. Should journalists abandon the principal job of disseminating accurate, verified information in favor of just letting the public decide what's fact from fiction—especially when trust with the media is so low anyway? No one is sure.

Traditional outlets didn't break with norms and kept with the age-old advice of not publishing unsubstantiated information, even though many organizations knew about the dossier since last October. But media purists argue that putting out material containing false or unverified information jeopardizes trust with the audience and is a poor replacement for good, old-fashion shoe leather reporting.

“We, like others, investigated the allegations and haven’t corroborated them, and we felt we’re not in the business of publishing things we can’t stand by,” Mr. Baquet said.

The other major argument against publishing the dossier is that the ability for the press to hold the Trump administration accountable is now irrevocably damaged. If the document contains a lot of false information, the president can easily deflect all criticism or allegations (even true ones) as "fake news."

If news organizations are unable to earn trust with audiences, accurately inform citizens and hold the president accountable, then some are left to wonder what purpose the news media ultimately serves.

But others, including BuzzFeed, argue citizens should have access to the same information that the likes of CNN and Mother Jones have been referring to for months. 

Is it fair that media outlets and the intelligence community keep referring to allegations from a document shielded from public eyes? This is the same kind of mission that drives WikiLeaks; gatekeepers are dead and the press should trust the American public to decide what's fact and fiction.

Richard Tofel, the president of ProPublica (a highly-regarded, nonprofit media organization), stands by BuzzFeed's decision. Once the intelligence community thought the dossier was important or credible enough to brief both President Obama and President-elect Trump on the allegations, it became newsworthy. 

This dossier, for better or worse, is driving intelligence and possibly policy decisions. Citizens should have access to it.

Here are perspectives from people who think BuzzFeed was wrong to publish unsubstantiated information.

Here are perspectives from people who think BuzzFeed was justified.

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