In late January, BuzzFeed published a lengthy standards and ethics manual, with which the site intended to hold itself accountable for various missteps (such as surreptitiously deleting articles). Unlike most other news outlets that bother with ethics manuals, however, BuzzFeed decided to specify its stance toward a number of social and political issues: “We firmly believe that for a number of issues, including civil rights, anti-racism, and LGBT equality, there are not two sides.”
The passage has earned BuzzFeed muted praise from liberals and heated scrutiny from social conservatives, the latter of which editor-in-chief Ben Smith has vigorously argued with on Twitter and talk radio since the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage. Meanwhile, Smith has called marriage equality “a story that has helped define BuzzFeed”:
BuzzFeed has, from the start, been all over it: with scoops small and large, inspiring images from same-sex weddings way back when they felt brand-new and powerful images from the steps of the Supreme Court, collaborations between news and buzz (starting before they were distinct things), and the mix of intelligence and emotion that is central to what we do. We played a big role in this story, leading coverage when some of the more traditional media viewed it as a niche issue, and capturing its profound cultural power.
Still, his site’s seemingly bold endorsement of certain policy positions is more complicated, and less bold, than it appears.
Several months after the manual was published, BuzzFeed quietly revised the passage quoted above (emphasis ours): “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.” Around the same time that the manual was revised, BuzzFeed’s official Tumblr published a post describing itself as “unequivocally” feminist.
BuzzFeed wouldn’t tell us why the original version of this section excluded women’s rights. But in an email to Gawker, BuzzFeed News executive editor Shani Hilton was happy to elaborate on what “women’s rights” entailed:
Broadly speaking, women’s rights are anything relating to equality between men and women, as well as issues like positive body image, equal pay, and workforce diversity. More specifically we’ve published essays and aggressively reported on a number issues that disproportionately impact women like campus rape, reproductive health, abortion, and intimate partner violence.
When asked to clarify whether BuzzFeed believes abortion is an issue for which “there are not two sides,” Hilton answered:
I can’t speak for the company, but in editorial we have not taken a stance on the right to obtain an abortion.
It’s obviously possible to identify yourself as “unequivocally” feminist even while equivocating on abortion access. (Ask Patricia Heaton.) But it’s unlikely that most feminists would agree with you—including, in many cases, BuzzFeed’s own editorial staff. In 2012, then-staffer Anna North argued that “when media outlets talk about women’s issues, they mean reproductive rights.” (Except, apparently, in the case of ethics guides.) And on the whole, BuzzFeed content takes a clear stance on abortion: It should be legal. Here are a few headlines taken from posts filed under the “abortion” tag:
There are many more similar examples showing that BuzzFeed supports abortion rights in both its straightforward news reporting and its viral content. (BuzzFeed has occasionally covered the issue from a decidedly anti-abortion viewpoint, such as when former Viral Politics editor Benny Johnson asked 13 self-identified secular anti-abortion activists to write down their point of view on a notepad and pose with their words for Johnson’s camera. It has also published “Community Brand” posts from the anti-choice activist group Personhood USA.)
So why is the company so reluctant to include abortion rights in its expansive definition of “women’s rights”? In a recent interview with conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, Ben Smith emphasized his desire to be “honest with [BuzzFeed’s] readers” of all political stripes:
How do you do [objective journalism] in a way that, you know, that’s honest with your readers? And I think you know, there’s always been, for a long time, been this debate both on the right and on the left saying come on, you guys, stop lying, don’t conceal your opinions. We know you have real opinions.
We couldn’t agree more.