The State of Journalism Is Not a Country

Last night, my friend Brianna Wu and I spoke at length — 2 hours and 20 minutes — for a special episode of her co-hosted podcast series, Isometric. The show was started for her, Maddy Myers, Georgia Dow, and Steve Lubitz to talk about game playing. However, the timing when they launched a few months ago was such that they have spent more time than they've wanted talking about the place and representation of women in videogames, as developers, journalists, essayists, and characters.

Because she's outspoken, Brianna became the target of quite a bit of harassment after her game, Revolution 60, was released. It's gotten a quite positive reception and a critical one: people take it seriously, whatever elements they praise or dislike about it. But then, because of her outspoken behavior and her unwillingness to stand down when people are threatened, she became the target of a "doxxing" attack — where one's personal details, such as address, phone number, email, social security number, even passwords — are uncovered and published, and then a direct threat of violence and death for her and her husband. They called police and decided to leave their home for the time being.

A few days later, one of the chief proponents of the worldview represented by a leaderless movement called GamerGate — named by actor Adam Baldwin on Twitter as a label for baseless and disproven allegation of biased editorial policies and reviews at games journalism sites — asked her to be on his podcast. Milo Yiannopoulos is a far right-wing contributor to the extreme site Breitbart, and a few months ago was openly ridiculing gamers. But he sensed a shift in the air, as GamerGate is deeply reactionary and misogynistic, and has a lot in common with Tea Party politics and logic.

Brianna, having left her home and being asked to be on some major news stations and programs, wasn't able to schedule with Milo as quickly as he liked. He got ridiculous and unpleasant about it. And she discovered he had "redoxxed" one of the victims of vicious attacks, Zoe Quinn, by linking to nude photos of her that had been spread. She decided to not do the show.

But he had sent questions ahead to let her prepare, and Brianna and I decided we would do a podcast in which I asked those questions, and she answered them, as well as discussed whether the questions were ethically fair or represented factual statements.

The moment Brianna announced three days ago that we were going to record the podcast, my feed erupted. She had noted I was a journalist and I was going to ask her the tough questions; we had set the terms that, even though I was her friend, I could ask her anything, and she'd answer.

The eruption seemed to be over the definition of journalism and journalist, but I couldn't follow the often angry, often illogical statements and accusations. The GamerGaters said, "You can't be unbiased in talking to her. You're a journalist. You can't do this."

And I said, "Two friends can't discuss a topic with full disclosure?" The answer seemed to be no.

This may stem from confusion about what journalism is and how journalists work. We are not unbiased; we attempt to shelve any bias we may have in favor of an honest examination, but disclosure is the key. If we have a bias related to a story, we explain it to our editors, and our editors have a duty to choose how to present it to the audience, or to take us off the story. As a freelancer, I feel this keenly: I have a strong ethical duty to all the publications for which I write, and the one that I own and edit.

But my obligation to remain "free of bias" starts and ends with the particular articles I engage in. In the rest of my life, I need to uphold my own ethical standards, but I can express any views I choose on any matter. I can even be completely unfair (though that is not in my nature).

What I can't do is bring my bias to my work nor have any personal or financial connections that are related to my work. But I can be a journalist and talk to someone I know in an independent forum (her podcast, in fact) without violating any policies for any publications I work for, nor general ethics guidelines for reporters.

What may be difficult for people outside the news industry to grok is that I am not an employee of any organization, nor have been for nearly 20 years. All my writing is on contract, even if it's recurring. If I were on staff as an employee, or even on a full-time contract for a publication, I would operate under much stricter standards, because every action I took (almost like a politician) would be a reflection of the publication for which I was working. To interview Brianna when I was a publication staffer, I would certainly have to clear it with a boss, and I might be told not to do it, because it might give the appearance of the publication lending its name and reputation to the interview.

Being outside that structure, it's not an issue, so long as we disclose clearly all our entanglements, which we did. The first hour of the podcast is us talking about journalistic and business ethics, the issues about accusing people of false reporting, believing victims, and financial entanglements. Brianna contributed to my book Kickstarter last year and this year (about $30 each time); I gave $25 to her company's Kickstarter; I paid her money to reprint the essay she wrote for The Magazine, and then other fees for other writing early this year for our then-collection at Medium.

Money changing hands doesn't destroy our ability to have any conversation at all. If we hadn't mentioned it, it would be a breach of personal ethics to be sure, if we represented ourselves as not having any connection or entanglement. We weren't planning to mislead people, but thousands of tweets accused us ahead of the podcast of that behavior. When I engaged some people and explained, they backed down, and some apologized.

What it felt like in many people's (angry or otherwise) condemnation of our potential to record a podcast is that journalism was a place that, once departed to, one may never return as a civilian — a military service for life, or a religious order. Once I am a journalist (a Journalist!), I cannot engage in any conversation with someone who is newsworthy and whom I know. This is a misunderstanding of the difference between "straight news," the quasi-objective attempt to represent factually an account of what has or is occurring, and all other kinds of journalism and news and such, which encompasses opinion, analysis, and conversation.

It put me in mind of Hamlet, the way they seemed to think of Journalism as a far-off land:

Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,    
The undiscovered country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will    
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?

Journalism is a concept, not a place; a job, which someone may lay down; a set of mind that one participates in; an obligation to see the world as it is. We engaged in some form of journalism in that podcast, and I believe upheld all the principles which we both hold, as a reporter on my side and a businessperson on hers — and as friends and colleagues with enormous mutual respect.