BuzzFeed Has Fired Benny Johnson For Widespread Plagiarism

BuzzFeed has fired Viral Politics editor Benny Johnson for multiple instances of plagiarism.

Editor-in-chief Ben Smith explained the firing in a post on BuzzFeed:

After carefully reviewing more than 500 of Benny’s posts, we have 41 instances of sentences or phrases copied word for word from other sites. Benny is a friend, colleague and, at his best, a creative force. But we had no choice other than letting him go.

According to the accompanying list of corrected articles, Johnson lifted text from dozens of online sources, including About.com, Advertising Age, Associated Press, BabySaidWhat.com, The Boston Globe, The Catholic News Herald, CBS News, CNN, CreativeGuerillaMarketing.com, EverythingMouse.com, Fox News, The Guardian, the Federal Register, The Hill, Marketwatch, National Review, NBC News, The New York Times, The New Yorker, Pictorymag.com, Politico, the blog Prof. Boerner’s Explorations, U.S. News & World Report, Wikipedia, The Atlantic Wire, The Washington Post, Yahoo! Answers, and Yahoo! Finance. Johnson also copied material from a report published by Senator Tom Coburn, press releases published by Representative Sam Johnson and the United States Botanical Garden, the autobiography of Harry Reid, the textbook Principles Of Economics, and an unnamed government website.

One of Johnson’s posts, 24 Delightful Inauguration Firsts,” was lifted almost entirely from the website of the U.S. Senate:

This post has been corrected to remove phrasing that was copied from a U.S. Senate website, which should have also been cited as the source for almost all of the information in this piece.

Smith expanded on Johnson’s ouster in a Friday memo, which was provided to Gawker by BuzzFeed spokesperson Ashley McCollum:

From: Ben Smith
Date: July 25, 2014 at 8:50:29 PM PDT
To: Editorial
Subject: What we’re doing about plagiarism at BuzzFeed

All,

After a review of all of his work at BuzzFeed, we’ve decided to let Benny Johnson go.

This isn’t a decision we took lightly. Shani, Katherine, and I spent today reviewing about 500 posts. In them, we found 40 instances of sentences or phrases copied, word for word, from other sites, many of them inappropriate sources in the first place. This pattern is not a minor slip. This is a breach of faith with our readers; a violation of a basic rule of writing; and the reflection of an unserious attitude to our work that is wildly out of line with both our standards and our ambition.

The most important of these principles is that we owe our readers absolute honesty. When you write, the implication is that the words are yours; if they aren’t, you’ve tricked the reader. We are in the process of correcting and noting the plagiarism.

Today’s review has also been a reminder of how much we’ve grown. BuzzFeed started seven years ago as a laboratory for content. Our writers didn’t have journalistic backgrounds and weren’t held to traditional journalistic standards, because we weren’t doing journalism. But that started changing a long time ago.

Today, we are one of the largest news and entertainment sites on the web. On the journalistic side, we have scores of aggressive reporters around the United States and the world, holding the people we cover to high standards. We must — and we will — hold ourselves to the same high standards. BuzzTeam, too, has, over the last two years, raised its game dramatically, focusing on creative and ambitious work, and increasingly careful attribution.

We, Benny’s editors, also owe our writers more: We should have caught what are now obvious differences in tone and style, and caught this very early on. We will be more vigilant in the future. We will also change our onboarding procedures to make sure that the high standards of training that come with our fellowship program extend to everyone who arrives at BuzzFeed — and particularly to those without a background in traditional journalism.

Tonight’s decision is not a knee-jerk response to outside criticism, though we are genuinely grateful to the people who helped point out instances of plagiarism. Nor is it meant as a personal condemnation: Benny at his best is a creative force, and we wish him the best. Finally, it is not a warning that you’ll be fired for a small mistake or an isolated error. We will always have a more forgiving attitude toward bold failures, innocent errors, and misfired jokes than more skittish old media organizations.

We have more responsibility now than ever now to keep raising our standards and our ambitions, and to continue getting better.

Ben, Shani, Katherine, and John

Johnson apologized on Twitter on Saturday morning: “To the writers who were not properly attributed and anyone who ever read my byline, I am sincerely sorry.”

This post has been updated throughout.


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