Buzzfeed dismisses political editor over plagiarism

Jul 28, 2014

Buzzfeed forced to sack political editor, Benny Johnson, due to 41 instances of plagiarism

NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images, the irreverent news and entertainment website, has been forced to dismiss one of its most prolific writers after an investigation into allegations of plagiarism identified "41 instances of sentences or phrases copied from other sources".

In an apology issued on Friday, Buzzfeed's editor-in-chief Ben Smith announced that "after careful review" the site's viral politics editor, Benny Johnson, had been let go for acts of plagiarism that breached the site's responsibility to its readers.

"We owe you, our readers, an apology," Smith said. "This is a breach of our fundamental responsibility to be honest with you. Plagiarism, much less copying unchecked facts from Wikipedia or other sources, is an act of disrespect to the reader. We are deeply embarrassed and sorry to have misled you".

The accusations started on Thursday, Politico reports, when instances highlighted in a blog called Our Bad Media led Gawker's JK Trotter to accuse Johnson of lifting text from "a variety of sources without credit".

Smith initially backed Johnson, declaring him to be a "deeply original writer", but when further allegations led to an internal review of more than 500 posts, Smith discovered Johnson had, in fact, "lifted phrases and sentences, word for word, from other sites – many of them inappropriate sources in the first place".

The Washington Post said that a number of Johnson's articles "used the same wording" found in Wikipedia entries and that he had copied verbatim from articles found in the National Review, US News and World Report and the New York Times.

In a memorandum circulated among Buzzfeed staff on Friday night, Smith wrote that Johnson's actions constituted a "pattern, not a minor slip," that was "wildly out of line" with Buzzfeed's "standards and ambition". He added that although Buzzfeed writers "weren't held to traditional journalistic standards when the site started out seven years ago, that started changing a long time ago".

CNN explains that when Smith was hired to take the helm at Buzzfeed in late 2011, his brief was "to turn the viral site into a bona fide news source". Since then the site has tried hard to mix established journalists – like Pulitzer Prize-winner Chris Hamby – with writers "who specialise in the lists and popular online material that account for the bulk of the site's traffic", the New York Times says.

Speaking with CNN, Mathew Ingram, a senior writer with GigaOm, commented that Buzzfeed's apology should be viewed as "a stake in ground, showing the company is serious about getting serious".

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