Ethical Journalism: Does it even exist at all, guys?

So. That ethics in journalism thing. Did anyone actually, you know… go looking for it?

We already know that the initial claims that set off #GamerGate, the five guys videos popularized by Adam Baldwin, was basically a pack of lies some guy sold to you with a slick YouTube conspiracy video. But that incident isn’t all that GamerGate’s about.

It’s also about ‘Ethics in Journalism’, whatever those are.

But has anyone gone searching for that? Can we get some real, verifiable information?

Let’s go back and check for some factual information in the Five Guys vid—

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gzQDMBs9hbk&feature=youtu.be&t=1m44s
Hold up! Hold up! … Give it to ‘em Daym!
Cultivated carrots are normally made up of 88% water, 1% protein, 1% ash, 1% fiber, and 0.2% fat.

—eo.

… Goddamnit. I’m never going to get that right. At least we have some facts now. About carrots.

Okay. I, like you, am sick of making this about alleged things happening between indie game devs and journalists who have had their names dragged around enough. I am sick of having to refer to and link to outright issues of harassment and abuse.

Let’s make this about something else.

Some guy Adam Baldwin tweeted a link to, ‘Daddy Warpig’, claimed, under the intriguing title of ‘How To Kill #GamerGate In 2 Easy Steps (That Kotaku, Polygon, And The Verge Won’t Ever Try!)’, that,

#GamerGate’s all about the misogyny, right? Jon Stone says it, The Verge does, hell everybody does. #GamerGate is a hate group, hiding behind a thin veneer of consumer rights, protesting journalistic malfeasance. But they’re lying right?
So call them on it. Kick them right in the balls. Tear away the veil and expose the hateful, bigoted troglodytes underneath.
Look at it this way: it’s a guaranteed win. Even if they’re not brutal, women-hating troglodytes looking to (vicariously) ravish helpless women in vicious women-hating video games, if you take away their single demand, you win. They have no leg to stand on. All you have to do is:
1. Adopt an ethics policy.
2. Adhere to it.
And they’re screwed. So why not do it?

You see this guy saying that they should ‘adopt an ethics policy’ and ‘adhere to it’? Like it’s obvious that they have no such policies, and would certainly never adhere to them?

This seems to be a common attitude amongst GamerGaters.

Well. I’ve got news for you.

Kotaku, Polygon, and the Verge…

…have all either made firm statements on their ethics, or have formal ethics policies. Which they’ve been adhering to for years. Many years, in fact.

And what is in these ethics policies, formal and informal?

Well, Kotaku’s editor in chief, while speaking on another matter in 2013, said the following:

Those of us who write professionally for Kotaku can see the positive reinforcement of a story done well and the negative blowback of a story that misses the mark. You can see some of this too. For one thing, our traffic stats are present on every article. What you can’t see are the emails we get, pro and con. You may not always be aware of the pride we take in our best work and you’re not privy to the anguish that comes from some of the worst.
Through all of this, we try to maintain a couple of key standards: one is to always write that which is genuinely interesting, that which, to use an example I often make, we’d be willing to mention after work, over a beer to a friend who asked what we did today — without fear of boring said friend.
Another standard is to be confident that, if we had to sit down with the person we are writing about and have them quietly read what we wrote about them in front of us — even if the piece was negative to them — we could ask them if they considered it fair and they’d say, “yes.”

More recently, during the current upheaval, he said:

We’ve long been wary of the potential undue influence of corporate gaming on games reporting, and we’ve taken many actions to guard against it. The last week has been, if nothing else, a good warning to all of us about the pitfalls of cliquishness in the indie dev scene and among the reporters who cover it. We’ve absorbed those lessons and assure you that, moving ahead, we’ll err on the side of consistent transparency on that front, too.
We appreciate healthy skepticism from critics and have looked into — and discussed internally — concerns. We agree on the need to ensure that, on the occasion where there is a personal connection between a writer and a developer, it’s mentioned. We’ve also agreed that funding any developers through services such as Patreon introduce needless potential conflicts of interest and are therefore nixing any such contributions by our writers. Some may disagree that Patreons are a conflict. That’s a debate for journalism critics.

Now, it’s true that the bits about Patreon and the indie scene are new? But let’s be real, here.

The part you should be worried about, the part that involves a metric fuckton of money being spent on courting the press, is corporate. The indie scene? These are games being put together for, in general, less than a hundred thousand dollars. The budget on Destiny is claimed to be as high as five hundred MILLION, GTA V came in at around two hundred and sixty five million, L.A. Noire? Fifty million.

This is where corruption pays off, this is where corruption makes an impact.

Oh, you’re worried about some chick’s patreon pulling in around $3 500 a month?

Get a grip. Seriously.

Get a mirror, look yourself in the eye, and say, aloud, ‘The companies involved in making Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 spent 200 million dollars on marketing, and 50 million on development.’

Does some indie scene matter when there are companies out there literally putting four times more money into marketing than development? Really?

If you are genuinely concerned about Patreon, congratulations. But understand you are part of a unique clique because, as Kotaku’s editor in chief rightly points out,

Some may disagree that Patreons are a conflict. That’s a debate for journalism critics.

The two hundred million dollar ad campaigns? That part, Kotaku’s already got policies in place to deal with. And they’ve had them for years.

Patreon and indie games? Well that kind of thing’s only really existed since around 2012, with the Kickstarter boom. Patreon’s a little newer, it’s only really started to catch on this year.

Polygon’s ethics statement recently had small additions made, possibly as a result of GamerGate:

Polygon staff are permitted to back video game Kickstarter campaigns at the minimum level necessary to acquire the game or hardware. No disclosure is needed.

&

Polygon staff are permitted to contribute to Patreon campaigns for members of the video game industry, but need to disclose the details of those contributions on their staff page as well as on any related coverage they publish on the site.

The Polygon ethics statement is otherwise quite lengthy, with gems of ethical dry wit such as:

Companies may send games or other products or samples to our editors in order for our staff to review such samples and determine whether we will provide a review of the product on Polygon. We do not accept any samples on any preconditions, such as, that we will agree to provide a review simply because the company sent us a sample. Please note that companies may provide these samples before the product is commercially available, in which case, we may agree to an embargo with the company or its PR firm. This means we agree not to publish the review or associated news until a given time.
Occasionally, we decide to review something which has not been provided to us by a company. In this case, an editor will either purchase the product for themselves (we buy a lot of games), or Vox Media will purchase the product for the team.

The entertainment factor of this document possibly explains why nobody involved with GamerGate bothered to check if there were any ethics in gaming media before making the claim that there weren’t.

This stuff is not nearly so fun to read as ‘THE JOURNALISTS ARE UNETHICAL DESTROY THEM’ type articles.

Completing the offered trifecta of GG destruction, the Verge has an ethics statement which has been in place since its founding in 2011.

It too is full of ethical dry wit, and, again, I can only assume nobody tried reading it, and instead decided to scream from the rooftops that these are the least ethical websites ever.

So here’s a verifiable fact for you: Carrots are 88% water, and all of these websites have had ethics policies and practices in place, formally or informally, for years.

And video game journalists? Given the amounts of money thrown in their direction by these multi-million dollar ad campaigns, you may be surprised to discover that:

In fact, games journalists are one of the most extraordinarily ethics-obsessed groups of people you’ll ever come across. It’s completely impossible to go for drinks with other members of the games media without ending up in an ethics discussion; is it right to let publishers pay for travel expenses? Should we ever let interviewees see questions in advance? Is it okay for reviewers to discuss the game they’re playing with other reviewers? What should we do with review copies of games after we’re finished with them? Should all the freebies publishers send us be sold off for charity? These questions and countless others have gone round and round over the past ten years, to the point where games media websites generally have more rigorous and honest ethics policies than almost any other area of the media. Seriously, see if you can find a film review anywhere that tells you who bought the journalist’s dinner and paid for his taxi to the cinema — details which have become almost de rigueur on major games websites.

Don’t believe me, or the article I quoted the above from?

I went looking for journalists to ask, and I got couple of folks willing to talk to me about it, and I basically asked them two things: Does the place you work for have an ethics policy, and how is it enforced?

These responses are only representative of their personal experiences and opinions, as given to some random guy on the internet. Highlights (in bold) are my own.

Adi Robertson, a reporter at The Verge, said:

It’s a given that we get facts right to the best of our ability, acknowledge when we’re not sure of something, and correct and acknowledge any errors.
Editors check and manage what goes on our site. More generally, trying to prove other sites wrong is what the tech writing world does. “No, [x] didn’t [y]” is a cliche in our field. Here’s the first example I can think of off the top of my head:
https://gigaom.com/2014/10/07/digital-surveillance-is-an-important-topic-but-scare-stories-about-ad-beacons-dont-help/
Gamergate has focused pretty closely on friendships in the indie community and journalists paying developers (but only through Patreon, as far as I can tell), but it’s much more common to call people out for accepting junkets or debunk a news piece. The latter often isn’t a question of “ethics,” in the way Gamergate seems to mean it. Sometimes an article is sensationalized, which is detrimental but not criminal. Sometimes, even the best of writers can do their homework, write a piece, and still miss something vital or just get bad information. The Wall Street Journal, for example, frequently reports rumors about what Apple might be doing for an upcoming event. They have excellent sources, and they’re often right. But they’re not always right by a long shot, and that doesn’t necessarily make them a bad or unethical news outlet.
If we’re talking purely about financial conflicts of interest, the highly successful Valleywag writer Sam Biddle has built his reputation largely by being a Silicon Valley startup/journalism gadfly. He’s hammered some sites hard on conflicts of interest, which have legitimately existed in the tech world.
http://valleywag.gawker.com/which-journalists-accepted-free-laptops-from-google-507673690
http://valleywag.gawker.com/michael-arrington-a-crooked-judge-since-2011-1308682362

Got that?

Now, The Verge is more a general tech site, but games journalism and tech journalism are not only similar parts of what is essentially the same larger industry of IT journalism, but The Verge is also on GG’s blacklist of bad horrible unethical websites.

Not only do their reporters expect their editors to wade in, but there are other journalists who have made their career on running around and searching for conflicts of interest and other unethical goings on, specifically to tell the world about them.

You get a fact wrong? Another journalist will get up in your face about it. You take money you weren’t supposed to? Another journalist will get all up in your grill. You do something worth getting you fired? They will try and get you fired.

John Funk, formerly a reporter with Polygon and The Escapist, said, in response to my questions (italics):

1. Do you, or the website you work with/for, follow a formal or informal code of ethical standards, which is either formally stated somewhere, informally understood to exist, or anything in-between? Could you (briefly) describe some of these standards?
I’m no longer a journalist, I left the industry in Jan/Feb of this year. But yes, I wrote for Polygon, and the ethics statement can be found here: http://www.polygon.com/pages/ethics-statement
There are a few key concepts: Polygon writers don’t accept trips, etc from publishers (so, if we’re invited to a press junket, Polygon pays for the flight & hotel, instead of accepting the freebie). Polygon writers cannot cover companies in which they have financial interests (like having previously worked there, having a spouse who works there). They can cover people whom they support on Patreon, but must disclose it (this was added after the initial ZQ debacle, everything else there was extant beforehand). They will publish corrections when a news story is factually wrong, not take it down. They will protect the identity of our sources, though they must verify their identity to the news writer. They keep ads and editorial separate, and just because a publisher sends them a product for review doesn’t mean they will review it.
It’s a good ethics policy, I felt (and still feel). Pretty comprehensive.
2. How are these standards enforced? For example, do other journalists, inside and outside your own website, look at the claims you make and attempt to verify them? Would you expect to be contacted by friends (or enemies) within the industry calling you on ethical blunders you’ve made?
Rigorously. It’s completely internal, no outside verification, but I know that when I, for instance, got a detail wrong in a news story and simply edited it out of habit (as I’d done at previous publications) I was taken to task by my editor for not publishing a correction instead. I never saw any pressure from the ad sales to influence what we wrote in editorial, and as far as I am aware everything else was very strictly adhered to.

But can we really trust these journalists to police themselves, internally? I mean, let’s be reasonable. Isn’t this a case of ‘who watches the watchers’?

Well, journalists do not form large secretive societies along the lines of the Illuminati in order to collude and collaborate. For one thing, a secret society full of blabbermouths wouldn’t last very long. For another, they’re in competition with each other for the same limited number of writing gigs.

But wait, what about the GameJournoPros list?! Isn’t that an example of the secret journalist Illuminati at work? Well, it wasn’t even really all that secret.

And, when I asked John Funk in another venue about whether or not he felt the need to disclose his membership on the list to his editors, he said:

Absolutely not. Like I’ve said before, there was never any sense of ‘this is unethical,’ it was a professional resource (or place to shoot the shit about random things / talk about the games we were playing). I might as well have disclosed “I follow these games journalists on twitter and they follow me back.”

When asking him if other journalists with opposing viewpoints had access, especially ones capable of calling him for any ethical slipups he might have made, he said:

People with opposing viewpoints absolutely had access to GJP. There was never any litmus test for entry; it was “hey, can I get in on this?” “Sure.” There were a bunch of arguments and disagreements; I dimly recall getting one of the digest emails and going “Damn, they’re really going at it.” Can’t remember over what, though. This was months ago.

This was less secret society and more a quiet web-forum just barely outside of the public eye.

So here’s our second fact: carrots are 1% protein, 1% fiber, 1% ash. Game journalists, and tech journalists, adhere to their ethical guidelines. If they don’t, they can expect to be called on it by other journalists, their editors, and even the complaining public.

These two facts are old news. Much older than GamerGate.

So the originally quoted method to kill GamerGate, which could be enacted by Kotaku, The Verge, and Polygon?

1. Adopt an ethics policy.
2. Adhere to it.

…?

Um.

So here’s a verifiable fact for you: Carrots are 88% water, and all of these websites have had ethics policies and practices in place, formally or informally, for years.

&

So here’s our second fact: carrots are 1% protein, 1% fiber, 1% ash. Game journalists, and tech journalists, adhere to their ethical guidelines. If they don’t, they can expect to be called on it by other journalists, their editors, and even the complaining public.

Are we done now? Can we put the hashtag away?

So. If ethics in games journalism is already a reality, and has been for years, what the hell is GamerGate actually out to achieve?

Is it. … Is it the misogyny? Have we reached that point in this?

I’m afraid not, because I’ll respect GGers enough to take them at face value with what they’re actively asking people to do.

Over at Kotaku In Action, one of their major discussion points on Reddit, they are presently calling for Sony to pull its ad revenue from Kotaku.

Why?

… I’m not sure why. I don’t think it’s misogyny.

On their call for the boycott, they link to Kotaku’s ‘we might be witnessing the death of an identity’ article, and in their bullet-point instructions they say:

Suggest how Sony’s best interest may be in advertising with other sites that don’t attack their customers

Now, the article itself primarily links to two other articles, including that Leigh Alexander piece I like so much.

It also says the following:

I’ve been working at Kotaku for nearly eight years now, and while I’ve seen some online kerfuffles over various issues in that time, I’ve never seen anything like the past two weeks.
There has been so much hate. So many angry words, so many accusations, over…what? Video games? Women in video games? People who write about video games?
It would be absurd if it hadn’t forced people out of their homes for fear of their personal safety.
There are a lot of opinions going around about this sad state of affairs at the moment, and you don’t have to travel far to find some, but if you want to read something beyond a simple recap, something more substantive, my advice — as someone horrified by the degree of hostility, bigotry and sheer inhumanity that has been on show — is to start with these two articles.

Is that the attack Kotaku In Action is referring to? Is this why you want to boycott Kotaku? Because they are horrified at the degree of hostility, bigotry, and sheer inhumanity that’s been on show in the recent past?

Clearly that slanderous article is untrue, GamerGate is definitely about ethics in journalism.

None of them bothered to see if there were any ethics there first, mind you, but it’s definitely about ethics in journalism, not misogyny.

If you think it’s about misogyny, or even HINT that it might be, they will run a boycott campaign against your advertising to try and shut you up for good.

So, nope. Not about misogyny. No sirree.

Incidentally, and in an obviously unrelated event, Brianna Wu was recently threatened out of her home shortly after criticising GamerGate.

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