BuzzFeed has the opportunity to help shape a new set of standards for a new generation of media. We are offering these standards to our staffers and to our readers as a first attempt at articulating the goal of merging the best of traditional media’s values with a true openness to the deep shifts in the forms of media and communication. Our intent with this document is to provide context and support for staffers in BuzzFeed’s three distinct editorial divisions — News, Buzz, and Life — in making smart, responsible, and ethical choices as we tell the most honest, troublemaking, revelatory, heartwarming, gripping, and entertaining stories we can.
These standards were shaped in conversations with our writers and editors and colleagues in the industry, and we expect them to evolve as they’re tested. BuzzFeed is still growing up too, and these are aimed at helping us on our way, and at reflecting the kind of media company we want to be. We are making this document public to keep BuzzFeed’s writers, reporters, and editors accountable to our readers.
The document is separated into four sections: 1) Sourcing, 2) Corrections, Updates, Deletions, and Errors, 3) Legal and Ethics, and 4) The Editorial and Business Relationship. The guidelines in this document apply to BuzzFeed’s global editorial operation — it notes where there are distinctions to be made for News, Buzz, and Life.
Finally, this guide is intended to provide principles, rather than offer specific answers to every possible ethical question that arises. Writers and editors make tough editorial decisions every day, and the hardest and most important calls rarely have obvious answers.
Information and Facts
Information — excluding common knowledge — should come from a verified source. Wikipedia, IMDb, and other websites that can be edited by anyone should never be used as sources in a story; they are places to begin research, not to finish it. Acceptable verified sources include interviews, legal documents, research by experts, academic journals, databases, and, with attribution, stories from trusted news organizations.
Polls and Other Studies
When considering reporting on a study or poll, ask these questions: Have the authors included a detailed methodology? How many people did they study? (For most studies, be skeptical of anything below 100; for polls, anything below 1,000.) Do the authors have any conflicts of interest? For medical studies: Was the study performed on humans, or other animals? (Drugs, for example, that work in mice might fail in humans.) For polls: How, precisely, were the questions worded? Never take information directly from a press release. Instead, ask the authors for a copy of the actual study or poll. In informational and entertainment polls that are conducted by BuzzFeed editorial, don’t suggest that results reflect a scientific sample. The data journalism team is available to assist staffers who have questions about data.
Attribution: All quotes are to be attributed. Quotes that have been given directly to a BuzzFeed News staffer should be noted as such by using the words “told BuzzFeed News,” at least once in the story. For service content written by BuzzFeed Life staffers, quotes should be noted with “tells BuzzFeed Life.” For non-news, non-service quotes, “told BuzzFeed” is preferred. Quotes from other outlets should be attributed to that outlet: “told The Guardian” etc., with a link to the article. Quotes that come from the wire services we subscribe to should also be attributed: “told the Associated Press” or “the Associated Press reported.”
Anonymous quotes: Anonymous quotes are permitted, though writers should always try to get a source on the record before agreeing to let them be anonymous. Staffers should spell out why their source is anonymous and include an explanation line in the story that the reader will understand. When possible, writers should share the source’s identity with their editor, unless it’s a very extreme case, in which case the editor-in-chief and executive editor for news should be consulted prior to publication. We don’t have an arbitrary number of anonymous sources required to verify a story: One well-placed anonymous source is worth more than four anonymous sources who are all repeating the same rumor.
Quote approval: As a general rule, BuzzFeed writers are not permitted to have quotes approved by sources or share story drafts with their subjects. As a courtesy, or to double-check their work, a writer may choose to call or email a source and describe how they are quoted in a story. “No surprises” letters are also a welcome way of letting sources and subjects know what will be in a story: Sending a note to the subject that includes allegations or a description of what will be published is a reporting tool that also acts as a safeguard for the reporter. There are rare exceptions to the quote-approval rule, particularly in countries where that practice is the norm — but writers should push back as a first response, and discuss with an editor before agreeing.
Quote disputes: If a source disputes a quote as published, the writer and their editor may review the writer’s notes and recordings to determine if the complaint is warranted. If warranted, the quote will be updated and a correction issued. If a source disputes the way their position was characterized, rather than a specific quote, an editor should determine whether the complaint is valid.
Reporters may quote from press releases, and should make the source clear — “said in a press release.” With that said: Interviews are always better.
We often embed Instagram images and tweets in news and entertainment. But in the case of sensitive subjects — sexual assault, LGBT, and racial oppression, for example — we should be aware of and respectful to the fact that many ostensibly public Twitter users consider themselves part of distinct communities. Outside of breaking news situations, writers are encouraged to contact Instagram and Twitter users when embedding a photo or a tweet on a sensitive subject. Contacting the user has the added benefit of giving the story more context for the reader. In cases where identifying the user is inappropriate but the content is still newsworthy, screenshots with the name and image blurred are fine.
Fact-checking can be provided for deep narrative features and investigative projects. For news stories, reporters are expected to be accurate, and editors are expected to flag any questions they have for their writers before publishing. Additional accurate information can always be added after publishing — removing bad information is more difficult (see Corrections and Updates for more information).
To plagiarize is to trick the reader. Nothing may be copied, pasted, and passed off as one’s own work, including press releases.
4. Corrections, Updates, Deletions, and Errors
Corrections and Updates
There are a number of ways of adding updates for clarity and context: using the update option in the CMS, writing through the body copy with the additional information, or adding the latest news to the top of the post. Consult with your editor to choose the best option — but in all cases, readers should be made aware that there is new text in the story.
Fixing incorrect copy should be done using the correction subbuzz. For full information on how and when to write corrections or updates, see the BuzzFeed Style Guide. Corrections are flagged to the copy desk; if you have questions on wording or styling, email (or walk over and visit!) them for guidance.
Editorial posts should never be deleted for reasons related to their content, or because a subject or stakeholder has asked you to do so. If a technical issue arises — like a duplicate post or an incorrect URL — email bugs or your manager. If a post was published ahead of schedule, remove it from all site promotion and ask bugs to unpublish it for you. If two people inadvertently created a post on the same subject, both posts should be left on the site.
If some information in a post is incorrect or obsolete, it is acceptable to delete that information and add a brief correction or update note explaining what was removed.
Getting hoaxed should be avoided through diligence and reporting, but if an entire post is incorrect or if it has turned out to be a hoax, 1) append “— Updated” to the end of the headline and note in the deck that the story is false, and 2) add a correction subbuzz to the top of the post. The rest of the copy may stand as it did originally.
Changes to body copy may require a notification to the reader via an update or correction. Stories that are ongoing with breaking news can be updated with information as it becomes available — by using either subheads with a manual timestamp or the breaking news template with an automatic timestamp to alert the reader to updates.
Updating display copy — headlines, decks, and photo captions — for clarity, spelling, or style does not require a correction. Factual errors do require a correction.
For information on updating images, contact the photo desk.
5. Legal and Ethics
Legal counsel should review stories with serious or potentially damaging allegations in them; if there is any doubt, do not hesitate to contact them. Writers are also encouraged to send a “no surprises” letter to subjects of investigative reports prior to publication, giving them time to comment. Any questions on how to word the letter should be run by your editor. For information on libel or conducting privileged conversations, contact general counsel.
We do not pay sources for interviews. If an interview incurs costs to a source through travel or work compensation lost, we may be able to reimburse them, but check with your editor before agreeing to do so.
Source Meetings Over Meals or Drinks
BuzzFeed staffers should seek to pay costs incurred over the course of an interview or source meeting over a meal or drink.
Giving a subject a general sense of the direction of the interview is fine, but we should decline to provide questions to subjects in advance of an in-person interview. Interviews conducted over email, Facebook messenger, or Gchat are permitted — but in-person, video, and telephone interviews are often more valuable.
Pseudonyms for authors are to be avoided — unless a freelancer is writing on an important but sensitive subject and doesn’t want to attach their name to a story. But regular contributors should write under their own names or their professional pen names. If you don’t feel comfortable publishing under your own name, there are likely problems with the story that need to be addressed.
While it ultimately comes down to the calls of the newsroom managers on duty, we have come to the conclusion that BuzzFeed.com is not an artificial wall between our readers and graphic content. Generally speaking, we will embed or link to the graphic content we are writing about. We have technical tools that give our readers the opportunity to opt in to view graphic content. Marking a post NSFW in the CMS prevents it from going into our 13+ BuzzFeed app.
Violence: Images that show blood, gore, or violent abuse should be covered with the graphic overlay tool, allowing readers to click if they wish to see the images. These posts should be marked “sensitive” in the CMS. When covering extreme violence or death, use discretion when embedding — sometimes it’s best to link out.
Sex and nudity: Nudity or sex should be avoided if it’s prurient or pornographic. Newsworthy or artistic nudity or instructional sexual content can be posted as long as the post has been clearly marked NSFW in the deck and in the CMS.
Profanity: We speak the language of the internet — which is often hilarious and often profane. As such, profanity is permitted on BuzzFeed; but see the BuzzFeed Style Guide for more information on how to style it responsibly.
If you have questions about whether you should post something because of its graphic nature, talk to your editor and/or the manager on duty.
Selfies are fantastic and you should take them as often as possible with friends and loved ones. But when celebrity visitors come to a BuzzFeed office, please don’t ask for photographs unless the staffer who brought them in has checked that it’s OK. BuzzFeed News reporters should use good judgment when taking images with their subjects. Ultimately, all staffers should answer this question when it comes to photographs: “Would taking a photo with this subject undermine the work I’m doing?”
We firmly believe that for a number of issues, including civil rights, women’s rights, anti-racism, and LGBT equality, there are not two sides. But when it comes to activism, BuzzFeed editorial must follow the lead of our editors and reporters who come out of a tradition of rigorous, neutral journalism that puts facts and news first. If we don’t, it makes it harder for those reporters to do their jobs. We encourage cross-team collaboration, but Buzz and Life staffers who wish to write on a hot-button news event should consult with News editors before publishing.
While we understand that many BuzzFeed editorial staffers are passionate and thoughtful and hold personal views on policy issues or candidates, we must maintain one blanket rule for all of editorial: Political partisanship may not be expressed in public forums, including Twitter and Facebook. With that said, we also understand that the three divisions of BuzzFeed editorial should have guidelines tailored to their work. As such, speech rules for each division are as follows:
BuzzFeed News: Reporters and editors should refrain from commenting in a partisan way about candidates or policy issues. News staffers are not permitted to donate money or volunteer time for political candidates or policy issues.
BuzzFeed Life and Buzz: Non-News staffers may express personal views on policy in a nonpartisan way, and may also donate time or money to candidates and causes. However, if a staffer intends to write about politics in any way — fun or serious — they must abide by the rules set for News staffers: No partisanship, advocacy for or against policy, or donating time or money is permitted.
Requesting Items for Review
BuzzFeed Life writers can accept and may request samples of consumer products for evaluation or for photo shoots (as props or construction material). These materials should stay at the office or at BuzzFeed’s photo studios. Detailed information about returning samples and crediting product sources is available from the managers of BuzzFeed Life.
BuzzFeed News staffers should request media that they are potentially interested in writing about (books, screeners, albums, etc). Physical materials are often provided for review purposes, like concert tickets, DVD screeners, etc. BuzzFeed staffers are under no obligation to provide coverage in exchange for access to to review materials, nor should the receipt of such materials be seen as a quid pro quo.
Disclosing Provided Materials
We should note when items such as clothing or appliances have been furnished to us for review. When an item or items was/were provided and used in the test kitchen or as part of a photo shoot, but not reviewed, writers should disclose that at the bottom of the post.
Gifts that aren’t review material (books, music, DVDs) or edible, typically, should be returned or donated. A rough guide — though imperfect — for determining if you can keep a gift is whether the item costs $25 or less. If it costs more than $25, talk to your editor.
Travel, Junkets and Set Visits
We are happy that we are able to send staffers from across editorial to report and cover events. For that reason, BuzzFeed editorial staffers are generally discouraged from accepting paid airfare/hotel/car service for coverage. Junkets and set visits paid for by outside sources are permitted only with cause and approval from a manager. If paid travel is approved for a Buzz or Life staffer, it should be disclosed in the resulting posts, but again, BuzzFeed has the resources to pay for travel that would result in great work.
A note for BuzzFeed News reporters and editors: If there is a journalistic reason for a BuzzFeed News reporter to accept travel and/or lodging provided for or arranged by a source, BuzzFeed News will reimburse the source with an amount equivalent to what we would have paid for commercial travel.
Conflict of Interest and Disclosure
If you’re asking yourself, “Is this a conflict of interest?” it likely is. Readers are also a good barometer for this; take a moment to consider whether the reader would see a conflict of interest. Writers and editors should disclose if they have a financial or personal stake — is the subject a friend or significant other? have you disclosed this? — in the issue they are covering. Reporters should not have a financial stake in a company in the industry they cover. Check with your editor about whether disclosure is enough, or whether the story should be reassigned.
BuzzFeed staffers who make money for work done outside of the company should disclose that information when they are hired. We discourage most freelance writing because we love your work and would like to publish the best things you write on BuzzFeed, but there are occasional exceptions. If you’re doing something BuzzFeed would publish — pretty much anything but a novel or a screenplay — we’d like to run it. Please consult your manager if you think we should make an exception, and we’ll consider it on a case-by-case basis.
We try to accommodate all book deals. If you’re thinking of writing a book, please consult our Managing Editor and General Counsel first. Contract work and paid speaking engagements will be considered on a case-by-case basis and should also be cleared with your manager and PR. Staffers who do outside work related to the field they cover should adhere to the ethical guidelines set forth in this document for their personal work as well. Life staffers who write about the cosmetic industry on a personal blog, for example, should disclose when cosmetics have been furnished to them.
If a staffer is making outside income from a specific company, that staffer is not permitted to write about that company.
Staffers are also not permitted to invest in a company that they cover. BuzzFeed staff may not buy, sell, or in any way trade in stocks based on stories BuzzFeed will publish. Staffers may not short any stocks.
BuzzFeed editorial seeks to follow the The Humane Society of the United States’ suggestion that you should “never put an animal in a situation that you wouldn’t want to see your newborn baby in.” Staffers should never purchase or rent wild animals, or bring exotic animals into the office. When we have animal guests visiting, they should be treated like any other guest — ie, their need for food, water, rest, and personal space should all be met. Handlers should accompany animals who come into BuzzFeed spaces, and staffers should always follow the guidelines that handlers lay out.
6. The Editorial and Business Relationship
BuzzFeed relies deeply on the trust of our readers that we are bringing them accurate reporting, great entertainment, and useful service — and so we maintain a strict and traditional separation between advertising and editorial content. The work of reporters, writers, and editors is entirely independent of our ad salespeople and their clients. Ad creatives report to the business side of BuzzFeed, not to editorial. What we are is a platform, technology, and forms of storytelling — but we are best served by organizational divisions that are clear to all.
We don’t write about ads that are running on BuzzFeed unless they are genuinely newsworthy. Appreciation buzz posts celebrating a fun or cool ad are fine, as are posts critical of ads — but that content should not be about ads BuzzFeed’s business side has created.
Advertisers and Editorial Reviews
Editorial staffers have the final word when it comes to reviewing an item or product — whether or not the company is an advertiser. Editorial staffers should never discuss a story about a company with a business-side staffer who works with that company; staffers on the business side who have questions or concerns about editorial content may communicate them only to the editor-in-chief.
BuzzFeed Motion Pictures
As BuzzFeed Motion Pictures expands, we’re going to be in more situations where BuzzFeed News is covering people (like, say, Jordan Peele or a Michael Shamberg film) who have an affiliation with BuzzFeed Motion Pictures. When we’re writing about someone who is affiliated with BMP in any capacity, we must disclose that relationship.
This should be done in italics at the bottom of a post in the following way:
Disclosure: [Name] is an adviser [or other title] to BuzzFeed Motion Pictures, a sister company of BuzzFeed News/Life.
Our investors have no influence on our reporting, and reporters should not take any special note of investors’ views or interests. When we cover people who are investors in BuzzFeed, typically it is because of their other business interests. Editors, not reporters, are responsible for noting whether a subject is an investor. In those cases, we should disclose that relationship with a parenthetical sentence in the running text after mentioning their name:
“([Name/company] is an investor in BuzzFeed.)”
BuzzFeed maintains a divide between advertising and editorial staff. However, management-level editorial employees may be asked to vet certain sponsorships or projects. Certain forms of advertising — including product placements and advertisements inline in videos or podcasts — will also involve non-news staffers’ participation in a clearly disclosed form.
This post has been updated.