Yahoo! Answers, one of the great artifacts of Internet history, is intently studied at viral news website BuzzFeed, where its trove of half-literate questions (and even less literate answers) has supplied material for at least fifty different posts and listicles. One BuzzFeed editor, however, has streamlined this aggregation process to its vanishing point: Simply copying text from Yahoo! Answers and pasting it, without attribution, into his own work.
Two pseudonymous Twitter users pointed out today that BuzzFeed’s Viral Politics editor, Benny Johnson, has periodically lifted text from a variety of sources—Wikipedia, U.S. News & World Report, a random press release—all without credit. The users, @blippoblappo and @crushingbort, supply convincing evidence that Johnson slightly reworded various sentences to make them his own.
Their clearest and most damning proof involves a sentence that originally appeared on Yahoo! Answers in 2009:
On April 22, 2013, Benny posted an article titled “7 Cities That Defy Terrorism.” Besides the standard citations for images, there are no attributions for the text in the piece. Benny listed London as an example of a terror-resilient city, but apparently forgot what terrors were exacted upon it, because he copy-and-pasted a Yahoo! Answers submission about the Blitz.
Here’s the Yahoo! Answer (from April 2009): “Throughout the London Blitz, over a million incendiaries and around 50,000 high explosive bombs were dropped on London.”
And here’s Johnson (from April 2013): “Throughout the London Blitz, over a million incendiaries and around 50,000 high explosive bombs were dropped on London by Nazi bombers.”
Within hours of @blippoblappo and @crushingbort’s report, BuzzFeed removed the passage and replaced it with: “London withstood a prolonged assault by the Nazis during the Blitz, with various estimates of the explosives dropped on the city ranging in the tens of thousands.” The article now carries a correction at the very bottom:
This piece included a sentence that was not attributed to its source, a post on Yahoo Answers. The sentence has been rewritten and attribution has been added.
The other articles highlighted by @blippoblappo and @crushingbort bear similar corrections, too.
This story used information from a U.S. News & World Reports article without proper attribution. Those facts have been updated with proper attribution. In other places, sources were cited inadequately; these facts have been updated with more prominent and direct citations.
And from “The Most Romantic Story in Congress”:
This piece contained a sentence that was not properly attributed to a press release produced by Rep. Sam Johnson’s office. That sentence has been placed in quotations and attributed to the office.
In an email to Gawker, editor-in-chief Ben Smith defended Johnson’s work at BuzzFeed:
We’re grateful to @blippoblappo and @crushingbort for pointing out these serious failures to properly attribute two quotations and to credit a source in a third post. We’ve corrected the posts.
Benny Johnson is one of the web’s deeply original writers, as is clear from his body of work.
Smith declined to comment on whether BuzzFeed’s updated editorial standards influenced the site’s response to Johnson’s work.
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