Something happened on the way to ethical journalism: bomb threats

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Almost a year ago now, I recall speaking to a few friends who work as journalists about this budding story that lay buried in the depth of chan-culture, deleted threads, and chain-shared tumblr posts.

At the time, it seemed like a non-story, and it kept spinning online as if it was only a personal drama. So much so, that many journalists simply missed the boat.
I couldn't do much more than point to the things that were happening, and hear my colleagues dismiss these events with "this, again?" every time I brought something up. I'm not the editor in chief of anyone I know, and if they didn't fancy chasing down a story with the excuse "I'm not a gamer", that's their prerogative.

A year later, almost to the day, the Society of Professional Journalists held a panel & day discussion in Miami, regarding how to cover online events, such as the one now known as "#gamergate". It was the regional director for the Society of Professional Journalists, Michael Koretzky, who had arranged this airplay event, explaining on its homepage why this topic was chosen: "Since it’s rare for non-journalists (or even journalists, for that matter) to mention journalism ethics, AirPlay aims to figure it out". If you would try to search for news about Gamergate on google, the first news result that would hit you is that the 'movement' is misogynistic, probably racist too, and most definitely right wing, oh, and they try to BOMB people. As Miami News said in a breaking news article "Bomb threats closed down a debate on the controversial topic of women’s representation in video games at a Society of Professional Journalists event in Miami on Saturday. ". Also, check out this tweet from Tampa Bay Times assistant metro editor, Michael Van Sickler.

Oh, hang on, *puts hand to ear-pierce*, we've just heard that there's no evidence that anyone associated with the group labelled "Gamergate" has phoned in any bomb threats, anywhere. And the event that SPJ arranged was discussing ethics in modern journalism. Michael Van Sickler was at the SPJ event, and @Gamediviner explained what was going on, soon Van Sickler let twitter know he was all caught up. (His phone probably vibrated out of his pocket due to all the twitter replies).

As for his original tweet, that's how easy one can propagate a narrative, whether by design, a poor choice of words, or ignorance. Essentially, this is how the gamergate saga began, panelists argued at SPJ. Gamers protesting bad journalism was covered by bad journalists. SPJ wanted to discuss how journalists can cover online movements, a difficult task, using this online movement as an example. In the era of hashtag activism, there's plenty of leaderless movements that need to be covered - #Blacklivesmatter has been US national news. Occupy Wall Street journalists at least had a physical location to go to where they could interview people. With Gamergate, some journalists are simply lost between the chans, twitter, and subreddits in how to find people.
There's a transcript of the SPJ airplay morning panel here, (also a video), and the afternoon panel can be viewed here. Derek Smart, a game developer, was on the "not gamergate" panel and he has shared his thoughts here. The morning panel kicked off with an "Explain Like I'm Five" Q&A session of what gamergate was actually about, and despite failing to sum it up succinctly the panelists agreed that it was an illuminating discussion. Lynn Walsh, the Society of Professional Journalists Ethics Expert, and Executive Producer at the investigative team at the NBC station in San Diego found that there had indeed been ethical breaches in game-reporting, such as journalists reporting on roommates projects without disclosing their relationship. Ms Walsh pointed out that in the SPJ Code of Ethics any conflict of interest "real or perceived" had to be avoided. "...I think that is so important because while you may not see it as a conflict of interest, the fact that someone else could or possibly could is huge too. Because if the public perceives it, then the reality of the world is it will become a conflict of interest in the public's state of mind. And then there goes your story." Now, it's not just conflicts of interest that are dogging gamergate, as with my examples above the narrative "sexism in video games" and "women harassed in video games" are sticky, so much so that an event discussing journalism is labelled a discussion about sexism.

The afternoon panel didn't go quite so well, as the panelists and the moderator seem to have vastly different ideas of what the topic of discussion was. Koretzky kept asking the panel how to cover these types of topics in the future, but both panels already know basic "get both sides of the story" journalism. On SPJAirplay Koretzky describes the bomb threats that interrupted the afternoon panel as a "mercy killing," but as I was watching the session live streamed I felt that the panels had just found equilibrium in their discussion and might have reached some very interesting end points had it continued undisturbed. While discussing how to get a story that lives on the internet, and how to show several sides to a story a la journalism 101 is perfectly valid topic at a professional event for journalists, I wished the discussion had looked at how the internet is changing journalism. While the panel may have laughed at Gawker, the vast reach of their clickbait effects how stories are reported, and not just in other outlets that might quote or link them. We have hashtag activism, and we have journalist activists today. Twitter was hailed as a hero tool during the Arab Spring, but also brings us #Cancelcolbert, and #hasJustinelandedyet. We have scientists like Tim Hunt being shamed into resigning over a joke that was misrepresented by someone attending. A twitter storm & certain press vilified Tim Hunt, while readers and former undergrads defended him. Offline, we have Rolling Stone magazine running a feature story about a horrific rape on campus, without speaking to any of the accused, which it later retracted. But not before the damage was done.

Ms. Walsh spoke of allowing the journalists to take the time they need to get the story right, but let's be honest, when being the top hit in Google depends on being the first one with the story, too many news outlets online rush in, only to issue corrections later. The promised "democratisation" that the internet brought us as individuals' voices could reach everywhere, also made us all our own editors, forced to sort the wheat from the chaff in the cacophony that follows. The internet, and the easily shared links on social media, mutated the yellow journalism of yore into a sharable beast. Sites supported by ever dwindling banner ad incomes fall into the trap of inventing the story, rather than reporting it. If I had attended this event, I would have wanted to discuss this, and how journalism can evolve in a connected world where nobody wants to pay for the news.


Disclosure: I was asked if I could attend by people on twitter, to replace a panelist who had decided to not go. While I would have been very interested in this, it was suggested very late, and I never spoke to Koretzky.

Comments (2)

  • Daniel's picture
    Daniel (not verified)

    Hey look its me in the white Tshirt

    Aug 19, 2015
  • V Whitaker's picture
    V Whitaker (not verified)

    The comment tweeted by Mike Van Sickler is a perfect example of how situations quickly come under fire and out of hand when people speak out under the assumption that they know something. When, truthfully, they only think they know. We are quickly turning into a society that not only doesn't ask the RIGHT questions - we don't question AT ALL. Social media is a literal garbage dump of information and if you are so intellectually lazy as to refuse to do due diligence when dumpster diving then all you do is blather another uninformed opinion. That conduct might be tolerable In nonprofessionals; but journalists...people that are suppose to report fairly and equitably on all sides of an issue do not get that kind of luxury. If you don't understand why then you are in the wrong profession.

    Aug 19, 2015

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Dabitch Creative Director, CEO, hell-raising sweetheart and editor of Adland. Globetrotting Swede who has lived and worked in New York, London, San Francisco, Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Stockholm after growing up in Kiruna, Raleigh and Jiddah.