BuzzFeed Controversy Highlights Risk of Advertising in Journalism

Editorial Board

BuzzFeed Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith came under fire this week after he deleted an article written by staff writer Arabelle Sicardi which critiqued Dove Personal Care’s latest ad. In her April 8 post, published with the subheading, “Once again, soap is acting condescending,” she criticized Dove’s viral video, “Choose Beautiful” (“Dove Has Women Walk Through Doors Labeled ‘Beautiful’ Or “Average’ In Latest Campaign,” BuzzFeed, April 8, 2015).

The advertisement, which is the latest video from Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign, questions society’s definition of beauty and pushes viewers to see themselves as possessing the “Real Beauty” Dove advocates. Sicardi took issue with the company’s hypocrisy in promoting the acceptance of natural beauty in order to sell cellulite-reducing lotion and skin-lightening creams — products expressly geared toward changing one’s appearance. Smith’s decision to remove the post garnered criticism from many who claimed that the choice was motivated by fear of negative ramifications. Dove is one of BuzzFeed’s corporate sponsors and Smith likely anticipated that the article could tarnish their relationship.

In the backlash that followed, Sicardi resigned, BuzzFeed reinstated the post and Smith sent an email to BuzzFeed staff apologizing for his editorial mistake: “I blew it. Twice in the last couple of months, I’ve asked editors — over their better judgment and without any respect to our standards or process — to delete recently published posts from the site. … You also have a right to ask about whether we did this because of advertiser pressure. … The answer is no.”

The second deleted article to which Smith refers was a BuzzFeed UK post from March 12 that criticized Hasbro, another one of BuzzFeed’s sponsors. The article, titled “Why Monopoly Is The Worst Game In The World, And What You Should Play Instead,” was deleted “at the request of the author” on March 13, according to the page where the article once was.

The Dove controversy highlights the tension between the growing need publications face for funding and the long-held value of journalistic independence. With the decline of print journalism and revenue sourced from selling print newspapers, new economic models are required. Eschewing the New York Times model of journalism, which simply requires a subscription fee for unlimited access, BuzzFeed’s primary source of revenue is corporate sponsorship and online advertising. The danger in this model, however, is that publications could become indebted to their sponsors. As seen in the initial removal of these two articles, this can result in the censorship of opinions that oppose corporate actions.

Internet journalism introduces new risk for the manifestation of this phenomenon. At least with Erdely’s Rolling Stone article “A Rape on Campus,” there was a print version of the article still circulating when the online version was modified and then deleted. By virtue of its solely online iteration, BuzzFeed has made it almost impossible, once a post has been deleted, to find an archived or cached version. With Chivers’ anti-Hasbro Monopoly post, BuzzFeed even included Chivers’ post in its robots.txt directory, which makes it nearly impossible to find an archived post, ensuring that password-protected pages aren’t indexed by Google or the Internet Archive. If BuzzFeed had not re-posted Sicardi’s Dove post, it also probably would have been lost in the internet forever. Transparency is even more of an issue with online-only publications like BuzzFeed.

The unfortunate truth is that in the demise of print media, journalists have been forced to get creative with funding sources, and corporate sponsorship is a very common, viable model. To resolve this issue, publications can and should be more transparent about where they are getting their money from and to whom they might be indebted. However, this is not a perfect solution, as the transparency of any given publication is hard to ensure. The burden must also fall on readers to make sure that they consume content from a variety of sources — and not just those they think they agree with.

As BuzzFeed grows, its left-leaning staff has come to include people from a range of backgrounds, meaning that there are many writers with differing and important opinions. This is wonderful, but of course, it doesn’t matter if the general public can’t access these opinions in the first place.