Looking back on it, Buzzfeed Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith might have selected a more pleasant way to spend New Year’s Eve. Smith was a guest on the Dec. 31 edition of the Hugh Hewitt Show, and found himself defending Buzzfeed’s practice of “click bait” journalism, posting a misleading sensationalized headline to draw readers. Making matters worse, Hewitt used a Buzzfeed story as an example that Editor-in-Chief Smith hadn’t read.
The Buzzfeed article in question was originally called “Dead Cops Chant’ a Myth.” After the Hewitt interview, it was changed to “The Origins Of The Alleged ‘Dead Cops’ Chant.” and a correction was added to the bottom of the article:
A headline on the front page of BuzzFeed described the chant of “dead cops” as a “myth.” In fact, marchers appearing to chant those words appear on a YouTube video embedded in this post.
Hewitt who is a law professor, took a “prosecutorial” approach to the questioning. He argued the headline was “misleading, because your reporter says it’s not a myth, it’s just overstated.”
Smith scrambled to read the story and answer the questions at the same time:
Hewitt: All right, let’s go from the general to the specific. The lead story at BuzzFeed on the last day of the year – Dead Cops Chant A Myth. That’s the headline. When you click on that, in fact, the headline is misleading, because your reporter says it’s not a myth, it’s just overstated. What they’ve latched onto in Tasneem Nasrullah’s piece is, “What they’ve latched onto is one viral video and a few small online anarchist groups.” And then as you read later, that’s the sub-head–I don’t know if she wrote that, either–when you read later, she actually comes up with a half-dozen instances of occasions where people have called for violence against police. So what do you call that, that escalator of attention-grabbers?
Smith: Well, wait a second. The…the…the specific…(pause)
Hewitt: The headline is Dead Cops Chant A Myth.
Smith: (pause) Actually, I haven’t read the story. So I don’t feel I want to debate it with you.
Smith: …as I read it on the screen…
Hewitt: I’m ahead of the editor?
Hewitt: That’s okay.
Smith: …enough these days.
Hewitt: Now look, here’s the deal. The story’s a good story. It’s very, it makes a key point, which is the amplification of trolls is a problem in the news business, right? … What happens is the lowest common denominator of any story gets the most attention. It happens on the immigration story, happens on the cop killer chant story. Nevertheless, the headline…
Smith: Wait, but you said this story, this story is protestors advocating for dead cops seems like a pretty straightforward…
Hewitt: Look at Dead Cops Chant A Myth, Ben. It’s not a myth. She confirms it in the first graph. It happened.
Smith: (pause) Oh, I see. You’re talking about the splash headline here.
Hewitt: Yeah, I’m talking about what people click on. So … is that tabloid? Are you guys borrowing…
Smith: I think “myth” is a little strong. But (pause while typing), but I guess, but what are you, I’m not, but I’m also not sure what you’re asking.
Hewitt: What I’m saying is do you feel regret that they used that? Or is that just fair game, tabloid journalism comes to the internet? You’re just trying to get people to click on that to read it…
Smith: Well you know, I’m going to have, I’m happy to take a look at the story that you just, that you’re reading aloud to me at the moment. I mean, I think that obviously, reporting should be accurate. Headlines should be accurate. I mean, so yeah, but I think that’s a fairly obvious point that we both agree on.