Many years ago, when this writer was young and stupid, he spent a lot of his time in print newsrooms, big and small. He even learned a few things about the profession and practice of journalism on the way. After serving on both sides of the editor's desk, for instance, one thing became crystal clear: journalists hate editors. They also depend on them.
The hierarchy of any newsroom in the world takes advantage of two big things: the impetuous energy of generally young writers, and the sober seen-it-all wisdom of their editor-superiors. No matter how talented, a writer working on their own, without strong editorial supervision to rein them in, was just a correction waiting to happen. It was only a matter of time. If the old guy across the desk didn't think your story was news, or supported by the evidence, it wasn't a story worth sharing with thousands of others.
I was thinking of this the other day, in connection with online journalism, particularly we journalists who focus on the computer gaming industry. For this last month has shown us no end of gaming writer controversies, almost all involving little rules other journalists live by, that we are taking our sweet time adopting.
Take the recent controversy surrounding Duke Nukem Forever screenshots. After an idle discussion on the popular PlanetCrap discussion board about the poor quality of some review sites' screenshots, Andrew Smith, its in-house journalist and discussion starter, took parts of the statements by 3DRealms developer George Broussard, and sold a story based on them to the Register, a British online news site.
Claiming that 3DRealms had "announced plans" to prevent review sites from posting Nukem screenshots, the writer backed up his claim with a few wildly-out-of-context quotes by the developer: quotes that were originally elicited largely by Smith's own persistent online badgering. ("Stop making this personal, Andy," Broussard says at one point, tellingly. "What's your agenda here? You keep specifying [Nukem] in every post. I'm speaking in general.")
Only considerable effort and legal intervention forced the Register a short time later to rewrite the story to reflect the actual truth of the matter. In journalistic lingo, this might be called "burning a source." As a rule, it's frowned upon, for obvious reasons. It was certainly an inappropriate way to generate news copy.
No one should believe for a minute that my colleagues at this and other sites are less dedicated, less knowledgeable, or less interesting than their counterparts in more established media, as some in the mainstream would like you to believe. No, the lag in bringing stronger news judgment principles to the web likely has less to do with the people than the structure of the medium. For instance, one could argue TV and newspapers and magazines developed strong editing largely because they had to work within story length or airtime restrictions, which just don't apply here. We have unlimited space, and corrections on the fly are much easier than in the other media. We can take, even should take, more chances. But no matter how novel and different the web may be, some of the same rules apply. Writer, minus good editing, eventually equals correction. Always.
The other key characteristic you need to know about professional journalists is that they're pack creatures. If everyone else is covering a story, and their paper is not, it's seen as a breach in the cosmic order of the universe, that must be righted immediately... even if every scrap of common sense is telling them all the others are wrong, and there's really no story here. This tendency, unfortunately, seems only enhanced among web journalists. But contrary to what some print elitists might say, however, there is little evidence this is related to any lack of ethics or professionalism online... more likely, it's due primarily to the ease of hyperlinking, which allows us all to scalp each others' stories with impunity. The side effect, though, is that other kinds of media a form of protection against spreading untruth web journalists don't have. Print writers can't just cut out a story with scissors and stick it in their own paper... they have to go through the time-costly exercise of a non-plagiaristic rewrite, which often acts as its own check against blindly following the pack. (If you have to get your own quotes, you often have to make the same phone calls the first reporter made, or should have made, and many a story has been debunked or discarded in the process.)
Partly as a result, one area where print continues to excel over online is proper skepticism about marginal stories and sources. At every newspaper I've worked, we've kept a "crazy file" - letters penned by criminals, schizophrenics, and those who just had a clear axe to grind with some celebrity or public official - that all writers get, if your byline was known at all. I still keep my favourite "crazy mail" - an eight-page handscrawled opus scrawled semi-coherently in five different colours of pen, and four different languages, which as near as I can tell, blames Jesuits for just about everything. (Why did I get it? I wrote something once about a church land deal that somehow indicated the priests hadn't gotten to me yet.) When I worked nights, I'd often get the regular 3 a.m. call to the newsroom by the same local crank as had called every other night, to complain about their alien implants, or the powerlines spoiling their milk, or whatever the problem of the day was. Faced with such a circumstance, the general response is to listen kindly... on the graveyard shift, it's the only entertainment a reporter's really got.
What you never do is file a story based solely on that caller's unique world view. Print papers are almost always under severe space restraints... to give a column inch to a story that no reasonable person would ever believe would be a waste. Even if a story sounds borderline credible, you still have to give a cursory investigation. I remember several afternoons wasted with people with serious problems with the local authorities, that certainly looked on the surface like grist for a "little guy gets screwed" epic. But they completely fell apart when court documents or some other authoritative source proved the real story wasn't even close to what we'd been told. The story, as they say, was promptly spiked.
Spiking is not yet a common web practice, it seems. The biggest threat for any big organization online - corporations, universities, sports leagues -- is the web equivalent of crazy mail: the personal website by a disgruntled or unbalanced individual, who wants nothing but to bring your organization down. Web publishing is cheap: and thanks to the ubiquity of hyperlinking, word spreads fast.
Nowhere was this made more clear than in the recent controversy over an incident involving Cyberathlete Professional League commissioner Mike Wardwell. Back in December, Wardwell, by all accounts a gentleman and superb organizer of game tournaments, expelled gamer Mark "Twilight" Henry from the CPL's Babbage's Tournament in Dallas for causing disruption. For a fledgling sport whose athletes aren't quite as used to referee expulsions as soccer or baseball players might be, this was unlikely to pass unnoticed by the community. Certainly not after Henry, understandably miffed, returned home and used his personal/clan webpage to give his own, deeply biased account of what occurred.
Henry alleged that he had in fact been assaulted by Wardwell, and backed that up with reference to a police report filed that day with Dallas police, even giving the reference number... but not actually quoting it. Reaction in online discussion groups devoted to pro gaming was suitably respectful of Henry's point of view. "If there was a police report," some correspondents said, in effect, "maybe something really did happen."
That is all, of course, entirely excusable. Less excusable, perhaps, is the decision by several major game sites (Gamers.com in particular) to run their own stories in the days following giving Henry's "side" of the story. Again, defenders used the existence of a police report as reason for this getting any play at all.
Never mind that the police report
Texas lawyer John Fischer, who represents the CPL, says all the bluster about an assault complaint was just that, bluster, by an obviously embarrassed and aggrieved party.
"Management has the right to refuse to do business with anyone. Mike [Wardwell], as an agent of management, was privileged in the use of reasonable force to make anyone leave who refused to. Obviously, he used far less than that. This principle of law is the same that allows bouncers to throw people out of clubs, and allows shopkeepers to detain suspected shoplifters, and so long as they act reasonably, their actions are privileged. Without this rule, there would be chaos in every bar and shopping mall.
"Even if Mike had been outside of the event, without the privilege, and acting on his own touched this guy on the shoulder, no reasonable person (juror or judge) would find that to be criminally harmful or offensive conduct. There will be no arrest, and this is well known to those publishing reports excitedly suggesting otherwise."
(Henry's own account all but admits this, as a matter of fact. Something else online writers failed to pick up on was his veiled accusation that the lack of police action was because the Dallas police were in a conspiracy with CPL officials, with off-duty officers were being employed as event security. Attempts were made by this writer to get the Dallas P.D.'s official opinion on the corruption allegation: suffice it to say the response was not polite.)
The sad fact is this: people are thrown out of sporting events all the time, for all kinds of reasons. Some of them even go looking for a journalist to complain to. They don't get coverage: certainly not in the volume this ludicrous incident has generated.
Online journalists commit this particular error over and over, it seems. The very fact there is a paper trail of any kind is assumed to imply there's a real story underneath. That simply isn't true, however, as any working print journalist can attest. It's not enough to just know there's a paper trail. It's also our responsibility as a professional to follow it and establish the truth.
One thing that can make this exceedingly difficult is the deep entanglement of interests that can occur when individual game journalists are also playing as professional gamers, for instance. As well, journalists and sites frequently have commercial connections to competing business interests that would impeach their credibility were they better known.
It's no secret for instance, that this site you're reading has a commercial connection with the CPL, one which everyone one should keep at the back of their mind every time I or any other writer here discusses the subject. But does everyone know that Joe "Thorian" Bako, one of the same league's most persistent and intelligent online gamer-critics, is currently working on a big mystery project he calls "the next big establishment in professional gaming," as he confirmed recently in an email? Would that not impeach the credibility of his recent CPL criticism just a little, if readers were universally made aware? Bako, by the way, was one of the journalists who made considerable hay with the Wardwell incident, calling it "an alleged assault incident being reported between the CPL League Commissioner and a foreign competitor." (Actually, Henry's from Georgia, but never mind.)
Of course, writers in magazines and other media find themselves in conflicts of interest, or appearances of conflict, all the time. Sometimes they are asked to write about something else instead: if that's not possible, they are expected to include a prominent disclaimer, in every piece, if there's the slightest chance they might be seen as having something to gain by picking one side over the other. Writers like Bako and the sites he write for would only enhance their own credibility by adopting similar rules of disclosure.
Or take the legendary Dennis "Thresh" Fong himself. The star cyberathlete of the now defunct Professional Gaming League never played in CPL events, and he has occasionally made noises about restarting the PGL. Not to mention there's been a historic antagonism between Fong and the CPL's founders going back years.
Given this, one sees the decision of Gamers.com, which Fong also owns, to devote exactly zero space to any of the actual winners or competition of the CPL's Babbage's tournament, while giving considerable attention to Henry's groundless and self-serving assault allegation at the same tourney as, at best, ethically questionable. People who saw the same public police report this reporter did were left wondering: was this a simple problem of reporters not looking for confirmation, or a case of attempted sabotage-by-media? (Ironically, Gamers.com itself would run into the same curse yesterday, as a story about layoffs at the site was transformed by the online press into a full eulogy for a supposedly dead dot.com, sacrificed to keep Fong's pro gaming league ambitions alive. Of course, if any of that were true, it would make the past CPL coverage even more suspicious.)
One should note at this point that there's nothing wrong with a website having a declared bias. The practice of having web sites that skew the news in an attempt to support a favoured political party or point of view is actually the historical norm in journalism. Only in recent decades have we seen this obsession by journalists in being seen as above any political affiliations. Never mind that it's never worked very well even for the largest media (everyone knows the close relationship between the Toronto Star and the National Post with Canada's two leading political parties, for instance). The truth is many of the greatest newspaper giants (from Horace Greeley to William Randolph Hearst) would have scoffed at the very idea of not using the power of the press to push their own side's point of view. It's a fine tradition in its own right, one continued today in America by magazines like the New Republic and the American Spectator, both with prose far more vivid and arguments more compelling than any bland newsweekly. If the web travels this familiar road as its journalism matures, that would not be a bad thing. The difference, of course, is that subscribers generally know in advance about this bias, and can alter their mental mindset accordingly. One is not certain every online source is being quite as candid.
The point about the deep entanglement of many web journalists with the commercial ventures they are reporting on was lost again in the recent Nintendo-Imagine Media controversy. For those who missed it, a recent lawsuit over Imagine's unofficial print Pokemon guide led to the Daily Radar game news site, which Imagine owns, pulling its Nintendo section for a week, claiming Nintendo's intent with the suit was to muzzle web writers' freedom of speech. Many online writers ran with a completely pro-Imagine piece ("Nintendo sues Daily Radar for posting screenshots" was a common headline.)
Fortunately, and rather honorably in fact, Daily Radar also posted the actual complaint from the lawsuit, which made clear to those who bothered to read it that the suit was actually limited to Imagine's unofficial guides, had nothing to do with the web at all, etc. etc. At least a few writers took the time to read it and point out the real story. When Nintendo finally weighed in with its own categorical denial a few days later, Daily Radar was forced to step off the orange crate of free speech and went back to covering the Home of Pokemon. Was Nintendo's reputation damaged in the process? Somewhat some may never know the real story and assume a leading game company is truly opposed to honest reviews of its products. For the damage that caused to this one corporation and its employees, the online parroting of each other by news sites bears a large measure of responsibility.Sometimes it works the other way, with corporations getting credit completely undeservedly, as well. An example this month was the announcement, widely repeated online, that Konami's computer snowboarding contest, the prize for which was a trip to February's Winter X Games, would be televised on ESPN. If it had been true, it would be something of a breakthrough for pro console gaming, as well as raising interesting questions about giving real and virtual snowboarders the same prominence. However, a quick look at the Winter Games TV schedule shows this not to be the case: shouldn't at least one of the reputable sites who ran with this story have confirmed that, at least?
The fact is, there has to be start being some point where online writers draw the line. Just because we have unlimited space in one sense, does not allow the kind of complete abdication of news judgment seen in the Wardwell (or Daily Radar) incidents. It's almost impossible to imagine a similar accusation about a senior official with any similar organization getting this kind of play in paper media: it'd be spiked after the first call to the cops. When we repeat the slanders, without even a cursory look at the evidence, reputations are damaged, and people's lives affected. As someone who's seen the wild accusations come in on the newsroom fax machine by the dozens, I'm asking you to trust me on this: every major public figure and institution you can name has had its share of baseless complaints made about it. The reason you haven't heard about many of them is because the print journalists who get them generally chose to exercise their professionalism: there's a reason the fax bin is located right next to the trash bin in a newsroom. That is, frankly, how it should be.
Even if an organization offends us personally, even if we are on a crusade, wouldn't it still generally be better to save the ammunition (and avoid overdrawing on reader credibility) until the facts are indisputably in our favour? While at the same time defending the value of our own work by admitting even potential conflicts of interest right from the start?
All this does not mean that online journalists should be complacent or stodgy. There's no doubt that the Drudge Report (and to a lesser extent Salon.com) played a major role in American politics these last few years. But muckraking journalists are found in all kinds of media, not just online: in Britain or Canada, Private Eye and Frank magazines filled the role of Drudge long before the web existed, even. Some online journalists should aspire to be muckrakers, too; but it would be a pretty sad medium if we all did.
Personal websites will always have their polemics and rants, and discussion boards are always going to be free game for the flamers and antagonists. And there should always be at least a few sites devoted solely to unsourced gossip and muckraking. But the websites "of record" have to start rising above this, just as print papers rise above their crazy mail. If online journalists are going to claim the same professional status as those other kinds of writers -- the muckraker, the tabloid reporter, the city daily or the newsmagazine hack - then we are going to have to try to conform to at least one of their ethical principles. By that I mean the one belief all those other subspecies share in common, the steadfast conviction that just because something may be a good story doesn't always mean it's news.