Three cheers for Buzzfeed

Last Sunday, I received a worried phone call from a friend saying that she’d been forwarded a perturbing text declaring in no uncertain terms that a terrorist attack had been planned on the London underground the following day.

As I was planning to travel into the so-called danger zone that morning and the British government had raised the national state of terror alert to “severe”, meaning an attack is highly likely to happen in the near future, I took this pretty seriously. This is despite the fact that I highly doubted such information would enter so freely into the public domain and the details appeared rather too exact for an attack that wasn’t going to be thwarted.

‘Proper journalism’ is about selling papers, or in the internet age, getting clicks

Like an idiot, I took to Twitter, because that’s such a great place to go to get a rumour cleared up and instantly smelt a rat. How did everyone have exactly the same details? That every single police officer in the Met would be called to work at 4am the next day, including those on holiday, to stand guard against a suspected bomb attack to occur somewhere around the West end. Either the person leaking this information had been terribly busy or this was a load of bollocks that had gone viral.

At the same time, when every time I pick up a paper I read of an Islamic-fundamentalist beheading or news that the West has decided to reaffirm its position on allowing Israel to commit genocide or bomb the shit out of a popular Islamic State movement – I wasn’t about to take my chances.

Tired of Twitter’s ranting and raving I took to Google (my second most reliable source of unreliable information) and found that the hoax had been undone by an intelligent and rapid piece of investigative journalism – by Jim Waterson, Deputy Editor of Buzzfeed UK.

He’d pasted an image of the troublesome text message asking readers if the reason they were Googling ‘terror alert London tube’ was because they’d received something that looked like this. He’d then found tweets from a Met officer denouncing the rumours as rubbish and saying there was no known specific terror threat to the London underground. And guess what? He was right. Nothing got blown up.

Now Buzzfeed comes in for a fair amount of stick from those that are conflicted and self-righteous enough to call themselves ‘proper journalists’. Well where the fuck were these ‘real journalists’ and their ‘real journalism’ on this occasion? I’d say quashing terrifying rumours of an imminent terrorist attack is pretty damn important. Certainly more important than the Metro’s phallic jogging routes or blurry photos of Kate Middleton’s tits in the middle-distance.

90% of Buzzfeed is trashy list-features examining burning issues such as 27 ways to maim an urban fox and 46,000 reasons Nickelback are worse than Justin Bieber. But who in God’s name are The Guardian and The Telegraph, with their blatant political motives, egotistical journalists and misleading headlines to judge Buzzfeed?

Let’s make one thing very clear. The Leveson enquiry and phone hacking scandal has made a lot of ‘proper journalists’ raise their heads above the parapet and get very smug about the concept of ‘good journalism’. Usually their descriptions centre around gaining access to previously unobtainable information and informing us, the sheltered, innocent public of how the world is even worse than we’d been led to believe.

Well step forward Jim for piecing together an albeit simple puzzle and sparing England’s capital from potential chaos in little over half an hour. Meanwhile ‘proper journalists’ were no doubt scoffing at their friends’ Facebook feeds for sharing light-hearted Buzzfeed content rather than reading their own long-form dross about the War on Terror.

As Lord Northcliffe’s rise and fall as founder and editor of the Daily Mail taught the world, ‘proper journalism’ is about selling papers, or in the internet age, getting clicks. Presenting people with worthy information about important topics is a means to this end, but so is filling your paper with celebrity gossip, PR surveys and having a good quarter of the content about sport.

Basically, what I’m saying is Buzzfeed did good. Its particular brand of internet journalism is designed with one thing in mind – getting clicks – but at least they’re bloody honest about it. And bloody good at it too. And actually, with a keen ear to the ground on social media and high interaction with readers, Buzzfeed clearly has the potential to become a far more powerful source of information.

If I were a journalist, I’d sooner be taking a long hard look at how I could learn from Buzzfeed than be so quick to deride it.

Joe McNamara
Joe McNamara
Tech PR and Telford layabout