Three Words That Go Oddly Together: ‘BuzzFeed’, ‘News’, ‘Investigation’

Among the many posts in my Google+ feed this AM is link to “Fostering Profits“, which dek begins: “A BuzzFeed News investigation”. My initial reading stopped there. What the frak? For the king of linkbaiting, “news” and “investigation” look wrong.

But as a Neiman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard video interview indicates, and as I explain in my ebook Responsible Reporting: Field Guide for Bloggers, Journalists, and Other Online News Gatherers, BuzzFeed seeks to be more than the list-linker to the Millennial generation. I am not so much skeptical as critical. The writing needs to be crisper and more inviting than this news story. I suggest editors take cues from Mother JonesVice News or Rolling Stone contributor Matt Taibbi rather than from ProPublica

Wake Me When It’s Over
The story, which accuses National Mentor Holdings of abuses related to children placed in foster care, bylines reporter Aram Roston and data editor Jeremy Singer-Vine. They practice “data journalism“, which is a cornerstone of ProPublica investigations. Concept: Cull, collate, and curate information as major part of the investigative news process. As such, Aram and Jeremy heavily rely on documents, supported by a few interviews. The majority of links in the story go to DocumentCloud, which service enables journalists, and other subscribers, to “turn documents into data”.

I praise BuzzFeed for seeking to produce original content that serves the public interest and the two writers for their commendable effort. But the story is boring, and I have personal interest. My grandparents fostered children—and not for profit. Forced describes my reading, just to write this post.

Headline “Fostering Profits” is all wrong for BuzzFeed and doesn’t legitimize the story as news. The story stands on the reporting, which hed should lead readers to. I clicked not for the headline but the dek and three words “BuzzFeed News investigation”.

From the perspective of responsible reporting, the story feels solid for the likes of BuzzFeed. But as interesting reading, or report that makes me feel something, the writing is too dry. Stated differently: Objectivity to a fault. I lumbered through the news story a second time, after feeling the caffeine effects of my first cup of coffee, hoping for better reaction. No, dammit.

The topic should appeal to Millennials, for proximity of age, experience, and pending parenthood (for the generation’s oldest). But there is little—don’t excuse the pun—buzzworthy here.

Make Me a Believer
My problems start with lede, which anecdote should draw my attention. The report opens: “In the summer of 2004, a 15-year-old boy…” Stop. Eleven years ago? He is 26 today? If the writers allege abuses in the present, why is their lead example from the last decade? But they don’t really. The body of reported events mostly takes place between 2000 and 2010, with some activity through 2013.

That teenager, now an adult, and identified as R.R., should be the centerpiece of the story—presuming the abuses alleged still continue this decade. Instead: “BuzzFeed News could not reach R.R. for comment”. Oh yeah? Then his abuse from 2004 shouldn’t frame the news report.

News is all about currency. The here and the now. I don’t see enough in this heavily data-mined report. Perhaps the writing can’t make me feel sorry enough for the kids or angry enough about the abuses because there isn’t enough currency credence.

This story would stand stronger leading off with abuses in this decade. The writing would command more authority in the present tense. “He says” instead of “he said”. This is a news story, and news is now, not then. Present tense impacts. Immediacy carries strong emotional connotations and subliminal associations. I call present tense a “weapon” because prolonged use affects readers’ reactions.

But a story relying so much on past events can’t easily be present. Nor can it be authoritative and credible. The abuse accusations the writers make are serious and stand or fall on the quality of the reporting. National Mentor Holdings can dismiss past problems as just that. If alleged abuses continue, their relevancy to the public trust is now, and the reporter’s responsibility is to reveal them.

Again, I am not skeptical of BuzzFeed’s objectives just, in this story, execution, which demonstrates the shortcomings of relying too much on data-mining. Nothing replaces interviews and getting the quote. To Aram and Jeremy, I end with this: Make us believers, and I don’t doubt  that you can.

Photo Credit: Svein Halvor Halvorsen