The Trouble With Unpublishing the News

In the Internet Age, it's easy to make articles disappear. That doesn't mean publishers should take it lightly.

Library of Congress

Once upon a time, not very long ago, publishing was a massive, visceral operation. It required buckets of ink, reams of paper, and mammoth machines that clanked and roared and churned. To stop the presses was a violent decision—also, a costly one.

Publishing nowadays seems muted in comparison. All it takes to make a news article appear—or disappear—is the silent press of a button from a handheld smartphone.

But removing an article from the web is still arguably the most dramatic choice a news organization can make.* Which is why BuzzFeed caused a stir this week when it chose to delete a post that was critical of a new beauty campaign by Dove. (Gawker was first to note the deletion of the piece, which you can still read here.) "Once again, soap is acting condescending," BuzzFeed's Arabelle Sicardi wrote. The article was removed and replaced with a message that says, "We pulled this post because it is not consistent with the tone of BuzzFeed Life." (BuzzFeed republished the post Friday afternoon, saying the initial deletion was in violation of its editorial standards. BuzzFeed's top editor explained the choice in a memo to employees.)

The removal was puzzling for a couple of reasons. For one, from an outsider's perspective, there's nothing about the tone of the piece that seems clearly antithetical to the tone of any number of BuzzFeed pieces. And the decision to remove it from the site appears to run counter to BuzzFeed's own editorial standards, published to the site back in January:

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.

The situation is confusing, too, because a BuzzFeed memo apparently intended to clarify the decision introduced further inconsistencies. Here's an excerpt:

When we approach charged topics like body image and feminism, we need to show not tell. (That's a good rule in general, by the way.) We can and should report on conversations that are happening around something that we have opinions about, but using our own voices (and hence, BuzzFeed's voice) to advance a personal opinion often isn't in line with BuzzFeed Life's tone and editorial mission.

This is not something we or Ben have made as clear as we need to. We've never had to pull a post before, and it's something that came with a lot of back-and-forth debate. In other words, it wasn't an easy decision. But it is where we ended up at when thinking more about our editorial mission and how we can further chip away at what we do and what we don't do.

The main takeaway is: When we write about news-related topics revolving around class, race, and feminism and other heated topics, it's important that we show the conversation that is happening, or find other people who can give smart and valid quotes to make the point, or, ideally, add to the conversation with something substantively new. BuzzFeed Life has had such a huge positive impact on people's lives by communicating our values in a fair and demonstrative way, rather than telling our audience how to think and feel.

The idea that BuzzFeed doesn't tell its audience how to think and feel is, to anyone who has read the site, obviously wrong. The site routinely writes posts meant to persuade its audience about newsworthy issues—like the California drought and the decision to get vaccinated. The reluctance about taking a stance is also weirdly old-school for a media organization that's usually better than its peers at navigating the contemporary news environment.

"When I read the note written by two BuzzFeed editors explaining the decision to their staff, it seemed a little odd," the media critic Jay Rosen told me in an email. "For in a way, it moves backward in media time. It appeared to be saying: 'We don't have our own voice, we report on what other voices are saying.' Really? So BuzzFeed doesn't do cultural criticism? And BuzzFeed defines cultural criticism pejoratively, as in 'telling people what to think.' I did not know that. I wonder how many BuzzFeed writers knew that."

Many journalists, naturally, find the whole situation to be suspicious. If the given reasons for pulling the post don't add up, then what's really going on? Are there different sets of standards for different sections of the site? Did BuzzFeed cave to pressure from an angry advertiser? (Dove is one of the site's advertising partners.) Perhaps the real explanation is less nefarious as a reflection of BuzzFeed and more troubling for the state of the larger media industry: Unpublishing is easy. Editorial decisions are sometimes arbitrary.

If, for instance, the article was removed without consideration for the site's editorial guidelines, it perhaps indicates a breakdown in communication—rather than a willingness by editors to let advertisers dictate coverage.

Unilever, the parent company of Dove, did not respond to respond to multiple requests for comment. Others who didn't respond to requests for comment: Sicardi, who wrote the post that was removed; Shani Hilton, BuzzFeed's executive editor, who wrote the editorial standards guide; and BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith. A spokeswoman said Smith would address the decision sometime Friday.** In the meantime, the spokeswoman declined to comment on a question about whether the post was removed without express permission from Smith and Hilton. She discouraged a line of questioning about whether BuzzFeed's news and life sections operated under different editorial standards.

"The editors had decided on the death penalty," Rosen said. "That's what they were tasked with explaining here. Unpublishing a post is a fairly extreme course of action."

More slippery are the instances in which stories are not deleted but changed without explanation. If a site that has been more transparent than most about its guidelines for unpublishing is inconsistent about following its own standard, what does that mean for the rest of the Internet?

It's a question that has to be asked but, without a paper trail, can never fully be answered.

* Editor's note: The Atlantic has on occasion temporarily unpublished, and then republished with an editor's note, posts originally published prematurely in error.

** This post has been updated to clarify that, according to a BuzzFeed spokesperson, Ben Smith planned to address the situation, but not in a blog post.