This Post Is about Ethics in Journalism

Don't worry that I'm going to rehash what #gamergate is; I'm not. If you need a rundown or refresher, the most recent solid take on the history, nature, and problems with it as a movement that may have good people in it but which is entirely corrupted by its, uh, history, nature, and ersatz leaders is from the good Dr. Nerdlove. Read his analysis. (You should also watch this short video that does an academic dissection of GamerGate as a set of  "base assumptions.")

I'd like to talk about journalistic ethics. No, seriously, I would.

I've been a writer most of my life, and started to get paid for it in 1994. I began to report for major publications, like the New York Times, Fortune, Wired, and the Economist in the late 1990s, as well as write for a variety of so-called trade magazines and sites (both consumer and industry). Every single publication I've worked for has had some kind of minimal to exceedingly detailed policy about conflicts of interest and disclosure. The trade pubs are often much more specific and restrictive than mainstream publications about what is and isn't acceptable.

As a freelancer, I have to be very careful about my actions because working for multiple publications means an intersecting superset of rules that I should be following. But I'll be honest: it's really not hard, because I disclose early and often to my editors, and make intelligent decisions of my own before pitching a story or working on one where a conflict clearly exists.

As a reporter, I'm obliged to avoid conflicts of interest, but when they are present, I'm obliged to tell my editors. I have written many times about people I know, and when it's relevant to the story, it's mentioned in it. In every case, I tell my editors; in every case, my editors decide whether to disclose friendships or other connections. I've never pitched nor written a story in which I had a stake in a financial outcome of the firm in question as a result of the story.

I give money to Kickstarters, I buy products, and I support Patreon and other campaigns. Because I'm paying money out, unless the amount is large or I've dissatisfied with the project, or if I gain special access to someone or something as a result of paying, it's not typically considered a conflict because I don't have a financial stake: I, in fact, lose money through the action, rather than gain it. If I backed a Kickstarter and it never fulfilled or the product was terrible, it's absolutely required that if I were to write about it, I tell my editor, because it is very likely it would color my writing, and readers should be aware of that, should I be allowed to write about it. (As a blogger, I also disclose such things in my blog entries.)

Many GamerGaters, whether sincerely or otherwise, beat the drum of "ethics in journalism" as a rallying cry, but the most genuine portion of their concerns seem to focus on related to clear guidelines, disclosure, and the ability to provide feedback as readers on perceived bias that won't be ignored. Why the most well-intentioned individuals aren't taken seriously is that they typically aren't addressing the right part of the equation or are asking for things that already exist.

In many cases, the people they are criticizing aren't journalists at all: they are opinion writers or essayists who work in the games industry (or unrelated industries) who are expected to disclose conflicts but are engaged in either analysis from a specific philosophical standpoint or from personal experience.

Let's break this down into a few categories:

Facts and intimacy

I know it seems obvious that reporting requires facts, and anyone reading this shouldn't have trouble with this notion. But I see over the last few months that we have a narrative problem. A set of vociferous people point to first-person accounts and hearsay (people relaying what they were told by other people, sometimes through a chain of people) as truth. Truth requires verification. A story without verification is a rumor.

The infamous essay about a breakup that sparked some of the ongoing churn of rage is one individual's highly personal account from his perspective. The assertion by others, who do not have his lived experience, that everything he represented is true is not valid. One can accept that this is his perception of what he lived through; but one doesn't use as the basis of journalism the unquestioned acceptance of a personal account.

There is the additional factor of whether the personal details of an average person's life should be examined in the media. Investigating and reporting on intimate details is typically reserved for tabloids unless both the figure is well-known and an intentional celebrity (actor, politician, book author, etc.) and the matter relates specifically to criminal or sometimes hypocritical behavior.

The essay in question wasn't reported on widely initially, because it wasn't credible or noteworthy. The person writing it and the subjects of it wouldn't meet any legal test for being public figures in most jurisdictions. The allegations contained in it were non-specific and lacked details to verify. The nature of it was prurient. The amount of money at stake, if any, was tiny (regarding reviews that would increase anyone's revenue).

The credibility issue isn't that the writer was necessarily reworking a story or making things up; rather that, on its face, its veracity couldn't be determined; without actual harm or noteworthiness, there was no point to verify details.

By calling for this essay to be reported on a fact and then many later, much more poorly sourced (and often fabricated) story elements to be told, those demanding such coverage were asking publications to behave unethically and against specific widely accepted reporting practices, which I'll get into later under ethics policies.

Game developers obtaining favorable coverage

I'll exclude the specific accusations at the core of GamerGate, as they have been debunked. But the general principle is worth examining. Did a person or company use a romantic relationship, a friendship, an advertising contract, or access to events or advance review copies to get an article or review written from a certain slant, modified after publication, or removed? Did a product, event, or industry figure obtain the coverage they wanted by manipulating editorial decisionmaking and fairness? And if so, then what?

In GamerGate, one of the principal problems is that game developers are being heavily critiqued for allegedly engaging in these sorts of behavior, and typically independent game devs who are studios of one to less than a dozen people, who have little money or funding.

But game devs aren't journalists. They didn't sign up for any code of conduct with a professional organization related to publications, and they don't owe a publication any specific fealty. One can argue everyone should be held to an ethical standard in life, but that is separate from attempting to hold firms making games to what one can reasonably expect from a publication that claims to use facts and analysis as the basis of what they put out into the world.

Whether on their own or through press relations (PR) professionals, nearly all creators and companies try to get stories written at all, and preferably favorable ones, about their work. I get dozens of press requests a week from companies with staff ranging from one part-time owner to 200,000 worldwide employees.

If someone promoting their products misuses a connection or uses coercion, a publication is responsible for the outcome. (The person or company engaging in that behavior may be behaving unethically or illegally as well.)

As a reader or any interested party, you contact the publication, preferably the editor of the piece (if known) or the editor of the publication. You lay out the facts and sources of the facts. In many cases, an editor may be unaware of a writer's affiliation or relationship with a source or subject. There are regularly reports from the travel-writing world in which a writer received something free or discounted from a resort, airline, or the like, and didn't tell an editor because that was in contravention of the publication's policies. Ditto, restaurant and food reviewers who obtain free things or special treatment who don't tell their editors. When uncovered, there's often a big stink, and some of the writers involved may never write for hire again.  (There are many food and travel sites that don't have such strict policies, and that's an actual ethics problem for believing coverage.)

If the publication refuses to acknowledge what you present, and you believe the facts tell a story, then you choose how to disseminate that. This is when it's critical to have verified facts of your own that stand up, because you could wind up accused of libel, and a publication with deep pockets or an angry owner might choose to sue you. This is very unlikely, though: very few web sites, in particular, have sued individuals who claim errors or bias in stories.

Many of the stories that allege ethical problems aren't about conflicts at all, but rather about political bias. While using the term ethics, the complaints relate to the specific inclusion of modes of thought. Some in GamerGate, for instance, object to critiquing the content of a videogame in a review as opposed to just its mechanics. That isn't an ethical issue.

Suggesting a writer be fired because you disagree with a review score or an opinion (especially due to a post labeled as opinion, analysis, op-ed, or an industry insight) seems extreme unless it's part of a provable pattern. Asking for them to be fired indicates you support the site, but disagree with its editorial judgment in providing that writer with work. If that's true, then the better course of action is to provide calm critique and documentation—or, ultimately, stop reading the site.

Many documented concerns and actual incidents (some proven, some alleged) about ethics don't show up on the GamerGate radar at all, because they often involve companies that make products the movement's participants like best. Leigh Alexander did a rundown. Recently, the makers of Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor (Warner Brothers) were called out when its social-media PR firm required YouTube reviews to only post positive reviews if they wanted to get software codes in advance of release. This wasn't disclosed to those watching the YouTube videos (though some reviewers did so after the news came out). While YouTube reviewers may not be games journalists, they aren't far from it.

(I have, in fact, been given review agreements for hardware and software on a handful of occasions that stated that I couldn't write negative things about the product if I accepted the review copy or loaner. In the trade press, most reviewers are allowed to keep software licenses, but all hardware above a nominal value—well below $50—must be returned. I refused loans or licenses when those terms were offered.)


A related ethics complaint is that after the creation of the tag #gamergate, a number of sites and publications published over a period of about two days stories that were headlined "the death of gamers," and which took varying approaches to talking about the end of a majority audience of a specific kind (young men); that gaming had expanded into a mainstream phenomenon in which many of the participants wouldn't use the term "gamer."

The meme spread immediately that many sites had colluded to produce essays simultaneously with a similar title, ignoring that a series of external events, including the tag created by a celebrity, pushed the subject into the news. The idea that games sites, fiercely competing for readers and advertising dollars, would collude to produce essays that ostensibly (but not if actually read) were intended insult many of their readers and were a coordinated attack fails the smell test.

But beyond that, the essays appeared not just on some games sites; rather, they included stories in tech site Ars Technica (which has libertarians at its helm and is owned by Condé Nast), Daily Beast (owned by the International Business Times), Buzzfeed (massively well financed independent journalism/meme outlet), Financial Post, Vice (indie media) the Guardian, and others. It would be a remarkable story if a political agenda and cabal spanned all of those publications writing about something newsworthy. The fact that most took a similar tack didn't occur to many critics as a sign that many different people (and their editors) had come to the same conclusions watching the same behavior and market changes unfold.

Related, some complain that there is a covert progressive agenda to rework the way in which videogames are reviewed to always include critiques based on feminism and the like, subtly or not so subtly pushing the review scores of games down so that those that don't toe a line of political correctness suffer in the marketplace and lead game studios to shift focus to narratives that many who align with GamerGate find politically oppressive.

Conspiracies that require many participants don't stand up to scrutiny, because everyone has separate agendas. The notion that hundreds of people across many sites are working together towards a groupthink was aided by the release of messages from a games journalist list, in which writers and editors talked in part about how to deal with some of the worst elements of gaming and their effects on their sites.

Nonetheless, for this conspiracy to be true, it requires participation across the many sites that make up the consumer-facing Metacritic score for games, and for multi-billion-dollar gaming companies to ignore the direct feedback of their customers and their field testing, and to accept that a coordinated political effort in reviews will change what the market wants.

More games may exist with broader and more subtle themes, but the games that rake in the most cash now will continue to zoom along so long as a market for them remains.

Ethics policies

A repeated cry for the last few weeks has been, "If only the sites would adopt ethics policies and stick to them!" But some sites have such policies; others should! Kotaku links from its About page to an extensive post from June 2013. Kotaku also said Patreon donations are off-limits to its writers in August 2014. Polygon has a specific ethics policy page that dates back to its launch in October 2012 (confirmed via the Wayback Machine). Joystiq has one. The Escapist (Defy Media) added a specific page recently. I can't find a policy on Gamasutra, IGN, or Giant Bomb, but the latter devoted a podcast to discussing games journalism ethics in 2012.

So there's certainly not a concerted effort to avoid the topic; some of the sites that have been most heavily criticized have had a policy in place for years.

I have seen many tweets and other posts that urge sites to adopt the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) ethics code, which is fascinating for laypeople to seize upon. There are many policies, and the SPJ isn't a guild or a licensing authority, which is how they are seemingly bandied about by gamers concerned with bias. I fear those urging this policy don't read the section entitled Minimize Harm, but only point to the Act Independently portion, such as: "Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity, even if others do."

The SPJ doesn't investigate and enforce policy violations. This is a living document that offers a set of best practices for publications. It's not a contract nor legally binding. All readers rely on the integrity of the publication that they are reading; the ethics guidelines help serve as a guide for how to trust them and a way to hold them accountable for hypocrisy.

It's not about the ethics

Ethical problems emerge in any industry that has its own trade publications, because the publishers typically obtain most of their money from those about which they write. As a long-time tech reporter, I've fortunately not experienced coercion or been offered bribes, but I have certainly heard and seen many occasions on which companies try to cross the line, as well as journalists offer to cross it.

The duty we owe our readers is honesty, not cringing fealty. Games journalism publishers, editors, and writers should produce work free of entanglements that materially affect their coverage and published pieces, but they shouldn't be barred from having friends and relationships, or having advertisers and sponsors. Disclosure is the name of the game, rather than the impossible notion of avoiding connections with others, especially in small industries, and making a clean breast of things when wrong decisions are made or writers or editors are misled.

(Comments are enabled unless they get out of hand. I moderate for civility and logic.)