BuzzFeed News 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 the deep shifts in the forms of media and communication. Our intent with this document is to provide context and support for BuzzFeed News staffers 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 News 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 News’ 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 news operation for entertainment content.
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 anyone can edit 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. When you’re asking readers to vote for fun, 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” (or in some cases, “BuzzFeed Health” or “BuzzFeed Reader”) at least once in the story. 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 explanatory 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 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.
Writers should also take precautions not to reveal the identity of confidential sources, including avoiding putting a source’s name in writing on unsecured channels.
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 issues, and racial bias, for example — we should be aware and respectful of 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. 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.
5. Corrections, Updates, Deletions, and Errors
Corrections and Updates
There are a number of ways to add updates for clarity and context to written news articles: 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.
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 copydesk; if you have questions on wording or styling, email (or walk over and visit!) them for guidance.
Distributed platforms will not always offer these tools for corrections, but we should strive for clarity and transparency in the spirit of these rules, given the options the platform makes available.
News items should not 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 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.
There are two cases in which deletions may be necessary: First, on some distributed platforms, editing content is not now an option, in which case content may be deleted and in some cases edited and reposted, with an explanation on that platform in either case. Second, in some countries, the law requires the deletion of content in some cases. In those cases, we will comply with local law.
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.
7. 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 are pleased when our colleagues’ work is honored by their peers, and we apply for leading journalism awards. We do not apply for or accept awards from advocacy organizations we cover, and staffers should not apply for those awards — though if anyone chooses to call attention to or honor our work, we welcome it. If you wish to submit your work for an award independently, talk to your manager about it.
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.
Freelancers and regular contributors should write under their own names or their professional pen names. We may make occasional exceptions for freelancers writing on important but sensitive topics, or for correspondents working on countries where journalism is dangerous or illegal. 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 concluded 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. On our owned-and-operated platforms, we also 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 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?”
Our original photography and image selection should not attempt to deceive the reader in any way. Subjects should be shown in the reality of the moment they are captured in. Materially manipulating images — such as reversing, distorting, or adding/removing people — is not allowed except in the cases of creating a photo illustration, which the caption will note. Minor adjustments to cropping, color, sharpening, etc., that do not materially change the photograph are permissible.
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.
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 campaigns, or to participate in demonstrations. (They are encouraged to report on demonstrations.) Reporters may of course engage in policy arguments on subjects in which they have expertise. But reporters should avoid saying things on social media that they wouldn’t say in a news article or video — i.e., statements they can’t back with reporting. Culture writers, whose work may be more overtly political, should try to hold their comments to the same standards they do in their work.
Reporters and editors should not fundraise for organizations BuzzFeed News covers, with the exception of professional groups and organizations primarily advocating the defense of a free press. Reporters shouldn’t give money to groups they cover. And while there is no rule on private contributions, staffers should obviously be aware that those contributions may not remain private.
BuzzFeed News 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.
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.
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 to report and cover events. 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. Where this isn’t feasible, we will disclose where we’ve accepted travel or lodging.
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 News 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 and will in most cases offer up to six months of unpaid book leave. If you’re thinking of writing a book, please consult your manager 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. 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 companies they cover. BuzzFeed News staff may not buy, sell, or in any way trade in stocks based on stories BuzzFeed News will publish. Staffers may not short any stocks.
We seek to follow 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 — i.e., 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.
9. The Editorial and Business Relationship
BuzzFeed News relies deeply on the trust of our readers that we are bringing them accurate reporting, great storytelling, and useful service — and so we maintain a strict and traditional separation between advertising and editorial content.
We don’t write about ads that are running on BuzzFeed unless they are genuinely newsworthy.
BuzzFeed Entertainment Group
As BuzzFeed expands, we’re going to be in more situations where BuzzFeed News is covering projects of people who have an affiliation with BuzzFeed Entertainment Group or other aspects of the company. When we’re writing about someone who is affiliated with BFEG in any capacity, we should 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 the BuzzFeed Entertainment Group, which is part of the same company as BuzzFeed News.
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 has business relationships with platforms ranging from social networks to television channels, under which BuzzFeed is paid for content, shares in advertising revenue against that content, or has some other arrangement. BuzzFeed News staffers should disclose these distribution relationships when we are writing about the specific product or program involved in the relationship. For instance, we should disclose that BuzzFeed has a Snapchat Discover channel when we are writing about Snapchat Discover as a product, or about Snapchat’s strategy around media partnerships. It is not necessary to disclose this relationship at every mention of the partner. Editors, not reporters, are responsible for noting whether a subject is a partner.
BuzzFeed News maintains a divide between advertising and editorial staff. However, management-level editorial employees may be asked to vet certain sponsorships or projects. Some forms of advertising — including video integrations and advertisements in podcasts — may also involve staffers’ participation in a clearly disclosed form.
This post was updated on Dec. 9, 2016.