I’ve been following GamerGate with a huge knot in my stomach because I feel strongly that we, journalistic professionals, need to always strive to do things right. And that has become harder and harder as change after change has buffeted our industry.
A bit of background on me. I’m 56 and I love news. I’ve followed guys like Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather, Ted Koppel and other pillars of news reporting from my youth. It was mainly because of that group of TV newscasters that I got into journalism. I’ve been in the business now for more than 30 years, longer if you count my high school, college, and law school years. I never did practice law, but I did work in newspapers, starting a year after law school in 1983 at a small weekly paper. I went from writer, to copy editor to news editor. I have also been a business editor, photo editor, page designer and production editor. I worked 19 years at three newspapers at a time when print was still a viable medium and a journalism code of ethics was enforced with your signature each year.
In 1999, I started writing about games for the newspaper, as the industry was starting to grow in the consciousness of the mainstream press. I even started to freelance for a young site called GameSpy, sometimes writing as many as four reviews, features or interviews a week. The site was looking for credibility, and management wanted a journalist to run their team to go toe-to-toe with the likes of GameSpot and IGN. I joined as managing editor in January 2000, and have been writing about games ever since. I am currently at The Escapist as Senior Editor, News and Features, having started in February.
I have a lot invested not only in the rules of good journalism, but also how those rules apply to my professional focus. I was co-founder of a gaming site called Crispy Gamer in late 2007 that tried to emphasize journalistic integrity and the fun of games and the industry, but a weak economy had the site (as I had envisioned it) folding in January 2010.
And let me clear the slate immediately on a couple things: I am not perfect and have made mistakes when writing stories, and I tend to beat myself up over any actual proven mistake I have made more than any boss or reader ever could.
The methods of journalism have changed tremendously over the last few decades. Notepads and pencils have given way to smartphones with keyboards and the ability to post instantly. Tape recorded notes have given way to digital audio and video recordings that can be downloaded instantly to your computer and posted raw if necessary. And finally, the concept of morning, afternoon and evening press cycles has given way to 24-hour social interactions in 140 characters, as well as Facebook, Instagram and websites that post as soon as news is ready … with the term “ready” occasionally being a relative term.
I would also be remiss if I did not mention that the concept of news today is a lot different than in my younger days. When you have Fox, CNN, MSNBC and other organizations offering skewed liberal and conservative agendas, and news hosts cherry-picking out-of-context comments and actions to promote their sensationalized conspiracy theories as news on topics of much more importance than video games, it is no wonder that that mentality carries over into our industry. Yellow Journalism is back, and I imagine Cronkite and other news veterans of old rolling over in their collective graves. When the likes of The Colbert Report and The Daily Show offer more insight than purported news outlets, there is a problem.
Let’s also dispose with how GamerGate started, the concept of “sides” and the supposed agendas of either. I am not here to throw any industry colleagues under the bus because I cannot accurately discern their motives, and like it or not, emails and even text messages make it a bit more difficult to read intent, as sarcasm and emotion are not easily conveyed. My philosophy has always been that there are two sides to every story, and the truth is somewhere in the middle, once all personal biases are removed. (I also have relatives who are police officers and have seen investigation through their eyes as well.) Unless you are a mind reader, you cannot tell exactly what a person’s intent was through cursory examination. And the propensity of certain people on both sides to paint everyone in a given class with broad all-inclusive strokes is not only counter-productive, but foolish if you have a legitimate message you want heard and given credibility. Those messages will be tuned out quickly.
With all that out of the way, what you will get here is my personal opinions on how I think things should be as a newspaper and gaming veteran and how I have tried to run The Escapist news team, and will run it going forward, especially as it pertains to the issues of journalism that were posted on The Escapist‘s GamerGate forum thread’s first page. Keep in mind that Defy Media and The Escapist have already posted a Code of Ethics. So let’s get started.
News stories should be just that, news and nothing more. That doesn’t mean to say the news must be dry, but it should be kept to the facts as presented via press release, quote or comment etc. Anonymous sources should be treated with suspicion, unless a source you know personally requests anonymity for reasons of safety or job security. And even then, getting other sources saying the same thing is a good idea. Now one thing I want to point out here that seems to get lost on some people on both sides is that visual evidence of any kind can be manipulated. It is sad, but true, and it makes the reporter’s job even tougher to use any visual evidence as “fact.” Video can be staged and edited, as can digital audio, and we have all experienced the reality of bullshots in games, so it is easy to see how any visual “evidence” can be a manipulation. I can no more take your word as fact than you can take mine until we have a rapport. And online, when so few people use real names, even that rapport is suspect. Let’s meet in person and let me look you in the eyes — then the relationship really begins. Sources years ago were people with faces, and trust led to credibility. An anonymous source usually had a name, voice, and a paper trail, not an electronic persona that can be easily manipulated or hidden. Sadly, the practice of journalism is much more complicated than it was years ago.
But that said, we should do everything we can to report only facts, sans slanted or ambiguous words, and avoid all inclusive language whenever possible, unless terms like “all,” “never,” and “everyone” are indeed a certainty. Editorializing should be kept to a minimum. At The Escapist, we tend to comment in news pieces in the last paragraph only. If more than that, we use an Editorial article template, like the one this article is in, where we try to make it clear that opinion is running rampant. I also try to tell my writers to be aware of their own personal biases so that they don’t creep into any writing. If an opinion is too strong one way or the other, or (in editing) a spin is noted that can’t be fixed without a full rewrite, the story will be given to a different writer.
There is also talk about why certain stories are covered and others may not be. I do not have an agenda for or against various political topics that are sparking controversy. The goal at The Escapist is to provide the most interesting and insightful content to gamers that we can — and not everyone will agree with our choices. When it comes to hard, investigative news, a lot of it has to do with what is actually provable and what we can get comments on. “He said/She said” stories may be great to stir a pot or create controversy, but they prove nothing, just that there are two sides and “The Truth is Out There” … somewhere. While we have been successful in places, that is not always the case. And personally, I hate incomplete stories or making mistakes in stories, even though it does happen despite due diligence. However, through the years, I feel I have gotten a good grasp of what is important and what is newsworthy. Those two do not always coincide. You may not always agree with me and what we cover, but that is my stance. It goes back to the issue of trust, and I hope this article is the first step.
I’m also big on transparency. I mentioned that when I worked at newspapers, each year we had to sign an ethics certification that basically made us swear to our employer that we had not received any gifts from any source of more than $25 (some places it was $50). The games industry is a different breed of animal, which caught me off guard when I started in 2000. Publisher junkets, gifts, and wining and dining were a lot more prevalent then than it is now. I rarely went on junkets, but the gifts could be crazy. I have received leather bomber jackets (yes, two), a set of chrome pistols that looked real but were actually cigarette lighters, personal organizers and even electronics. I have also received more t-shirts than I can count. When I got them, my first thought was “Why?” — keep in mind my background. Did people really think my objectivity could be swayed because of cool promotional stuff? Speaking only for myself, I rarely kept anything I received because it didn’t feel right. I did keep a bomber jacket and a personal organizer — the portfolio type with a place for pen, business cards and pad of paper — and a few t-shirts – but that was it. To be honest, I can’t remember anything elaborate I have gotten besides a t-shirt or collector’s edition game since 2007. It’s also why I agree with the disclosure policy of The Escapist. We note on reviews and previews if a game has been provided, or if we received travel accommodations. Conspiracy theory says we were influenced, but in practice I’m really not. I’ve always been a taco and motel guy and I don’t drink, so anything extra seems stupid and excessive, but full disclosure goes a long way to mitigating any talk.
The last thing I want to discuss is community interaction. I am a lurker more than anything, but when I do participate, I believe in the golden rule. You treat people the way you want to be treated and be respectful. I rarely use Twitter as it is too volatile and I keep my Facebook private, but I do participate in forums for informational purposes and to answer questions. My picture is on my profile and I even use my real name. If we do ever interact, I will try to be respectful and courteous, as my actions reflect on The Escapist. I ask for the same respect and civility whether we agree or not. I also abhor harassment and threats (remember the cops as relatives?) so definitely don’t go there.
So there it is. The gathering and reporting of news is different these days than it was in years past. Personally, I’m adapting, but a journalism code of ethics is indeed a noble goal for our industry. You have seen our company policy, and now you have a bit of perspective on me and the philosophy behind The Escapist‘s news. Whether you agree or disagree, I hope you can respect the effort and appreciate my attempt at transparency and accountability.