Is it ethical to refuse to talk about ethics?
Yesterday concluded Ethics Week for the Society of Professional Journalism. The end didn’t arrive fast enough for the freaked-out leaders of the world’s largest and oldest organization for reporters and editors.
Explaining GamerGate to those who don’t have a clue is like explaining the Israel-Palestine conflict to a child who asks, “They’re neighbors, so why are they killing each other?” The controversy is so molecular, you can’t recount a single historical fact that isn’t in dispute.
In GamerGate, the battle is also between neighbors: videogame enthusiasts and videogame journalists. The former say the latter are colluding with developers and PR agents — even exchanging sex for positive coverage. But their war crimes have included hijacking, flaming, hacking, doxing, and rape and death threats so severe, women have fled their homes in fear.
Here’s a popular and critical GamerGate definition from Vox…
“Ostensibly, it’s a community of gamers who are concerned about ethically problematic relationships between independent game developers and the journalists who write about them. But in practice, the movement has mostly been about deplorable harassment and intimidation of critics — usually women — who dare to disagree with them. It has becoming a misogynistic mob masquerading as a social movement.”
The other side is best defined by the GamerGate Wiki…
#GamerGate is a consumer revolt triggered by the overt politicization, ethical misconduct, and unprecedented amounts of censorship targeted at gamers and video games as a whole that is presently being perpetrated by many entities within the industry. … The GamerGate revolt has also been the focus of heavy criticism from influential feminists within the gaming industry, as multiple reports of third party trolling and other forms of abusive behavior, mostly directed towards prominent women in the video game industry, are common. As a result, GamerGate is commonly referred to as a “misogynistic hate campaign” by its detractors, although statistics suggest that this view of GamerGate is inaccurate.
Whether it’s most GamerGaters or a vocal few who have terrorized their critics, the barbarism of the debate has unnerved journalists who might otherwise cover it.
The irony, of course, is that GamerGaters accuse the media of ignoring their legitimate claims, so some (many?) ramp up their antagonism to get attention, which drives away reasonable reporters and readers, which just makes them madder at being ignored, so they heap on more antagonism.
That scared the hell out of SPJ, which explains why the 100-year-old organization said nothing until yesterday about the deluge of GamerGate tweets on its hashtag last week.
According to Keyhole, more than 700 posts flooded #SPJEthicsWeek. Almost all were pure crap: anti-semitic, misogynistic, and homophobic. Click those links at your own peril, because they’re disgusting.
Thankfully, the sickest shit came from just a dozen anonymous accounts, and other GamerGaters noticed…
— sinister (@_sinisterBen) April 30, 2015
Lost in the noise were some legitimate posts about journalism ethics. One GamerGater did some reporting, studying both SPJ’s Code of Ethics and the policies of a videogame news site…
Another quoted the Twitter feed of a gaming journalist and commented…
Yet another pointed folks to a Pew Research Center study that all journalists should read…
I’m an SPJ board member, so I urged us to talk about this — not to take sides, but to discuss the ethics of both sides. SPJ leaders said no way. When I offered to write something on my SPJ blog, they urged me not to. When I asked for an official statement about our reluctance, they refused.
Finally, when they realized I was going to write something anyway, SPJ’s Ethics Committee chairman Andrew Seaman hastily wrote a post yesterday, in which he explained…
I — along with some other people in the Society’s leadership — decided to abandon the Twitter hashtag #SPJEthicsWeek. … I also urged people not to address the chorus of posts for the protection of the Society, its leaders and its members who would engage with each other over the Internet throughout the week. After all, the week’s theme was “minimize harm.” I did not want to take the risk of exposing anyone within the organization to harassment or threats.
While I was pleased SPJ finally said something about a movement that found them, I was irked its ethics chairman used SPJ’s vaunted Code of Ethics not for the protection of others, but for the “protection of the Society.”
So much for the bravery of journalists. SPJ looks at its hashtag hijacking as a tragedy. I see it as an opportunity.
Ethical questions I’ll ask and answer.
All last week, I tried to talk to “professional” journalists about GamerGate. Most didn’t want to or muttered lame excuses. So I’ll talk to myself. But I welcome other answers and other questions.
1. Why should SPJ say anything about GamerGate?
Whenever someone says “journalism ethics” in a big way,SPJ should enter the fray.
Last October, actor Adam Baldwin (who coined the term GamerGate) told The New York Times, “We’re about ethics in journalism.” That seems like a big way to me. It doesn’t matter if he’s right, wrong, or lying. He said the magic words on a national stage.
SPJ calls its Code of Ethics “the definitive statement of our profession’s highest values” and “an important reference for professionals, students and citizens.”
How definitive and important can you be when you ignore people who come to your hashtag during Ethics Week — a week you tout as “a means of placing a spotlight on our ethical responsibilities and reaching out to the communities we serve”?
2. But GamerGaters don’t care about ethics, they just want attention! Why give it to them?
I believe SPJ should obey its own code, which says, “Avoid stereotyping.” How do we know all GamerGaters are evil?
While I condemn the ones who are — more on that in the next self-serving question — there are women who defend GamerGate. Then again, a meticulous Medium post aggregated The Bad Apples of #GamerGate and concluded, “There may be ethical, honest people involved in #GamerGate. But a few good apples won’t magically make a rotten barrel edible.”
I don’t pretend to know the distribution inside that barrel, but if SPJ has to wade through 1,000 bad apples to reach 10 good ones, I’ll take those odds. Why? I volunteer as an adviser to a college newspaper, and I know many professors who say, in a class of 20 students, only 2-3 actually give a damn. Yet they keep teaching. So should we.
3. Even if a few are thoughtful, they’re mostly dangerous jerks. What can SPJ possibly gain?
SPJ should comment because so much of GamerGate is unethical. That’s what ethics codes are for. Let me turn the question around: If we talk about ethics only in polite company, what does SPJ gain then?
GamerGate has seriously hurt people. SPJ should be brave enough to say so. Those who inflicted the damage say they want journalism ethics applied to the gaming media, but they’re acting as journalists themselves when they opine or dox. SPJ’s Code of Ethics applies to them, too, and we should cite these five entries…
- “Weigh the consequences of publishing or broadcasting personal information.”
- “Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance or undue intrusiveness.”
- “Diligently seek subjects of news coverage to allow them to respond to criticism or allegations of wrongdoing.”
- “Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity, even if others do.”
- “Encourage a civil dialogue with the public about journalistic practices, coverage and news content.”
Will the worst GamerGaters listen? Hell no. But maybe the best ones will. Anyway, journalists should talk about ethics whenever it’s relevant, regardless of what we think the response will be.
4. If “good” GamerGaters aren’t speaking out against the hate, isn’t that proof enough to stay out of this?
If SPJ — with more than 7,000 members and a full-time staff of 15 — is too intimidated to whisper an ethical warning, you can’t really expect individuals to do it.
Besides, to quote SPJ’s Code again, “Journalists should support the open and civil exchange of views, even views they find repugnant.” Maybe if we do this, others will be emboldened by our bravery. Maybe, as the Code says, we can “give voice to the voiceless.”
5. Don’t we have better ways to spend our time than on this rabble?
Like what? Name an Ethics Week event that would’ve reached more people. According to SPJ’s own press release, it hosted two tiny Twitter chats. Instead of talking to the world about journalism ethics, SPJ members talked to each other — and, as it turned out, a few GamerGaters.
The second chat, #SPJEthicsChat, attracted four GamerGaters who contributed to the conversation (about the ethical failings of Brian Williams and Rolling Stone) without derailing it.
Afterward, they were quite polite, which should blow a few minds…
6. Good GamerGaters aside, you’re exposing SPJ and yourself to the web’s worst attackers. Don’t you care?
Of course I care. I don’t want SPJ to suffer. I sure don’t want me to suffer. But I believe it’s unethical to ignore ethical problems out of fear or disgust. Plus, if we say nothing, we’ve just handed the Internet’s biggest assholes the blueprint for how to intimidate journalists: Be really evil, and we’ll be really quiet.
How I know GamerGate is ethically legit.
If it can cast aside the anonymous atrocities made in its name, the movement has a point. I’ve seen it for myself — 15 years ago.
In 2000, I was content director for a short-lived website called Jester.com, created by the former college roommate of Hollywood producer Michael Bay. I oversaw editors for skateboarding, snowboarding, surfing, and videogames. Because most people were still on dial-up back then, gaming magazines were more popular in print than online.
It wasn’t rare for my gaming editor to try a new game and declare it “suck-ass,” then get the print magazine in the mail a week or so later — and a review would fawn all over that suck-ass game. We knew what was happening: Those magazines had full-page ads from the developers of those games.
This wasn’t shocking. It happened all the time, and we just accepted it because we couldn’t imagine a different world — kind of like how I accepted people smoking on airplanes when I traveled as a kid. I’m glad times are changing in all sorts of ways. That includes gaming journalism.
Of course, I’ve heard from (mostly older) journalists who wonder, “Why should we waste all this time on kids who play videogames?” One actually asked me if GamerGate was about casinos.
Mainstream journalists should read their peers’ reporting. They’d learn over half of adults play videogames, and the industry is bigger than Hollywood. Consumer Reports has announced, “It’s Time To Start Treating Video Game Industry Like The $21 Billion Business It Is.”
It’s time for journalists to do the same.
So what happens now?
I pray that after today, GamerGaters don’t live down to the opinion SPJ leaders have of them. I pray they don’t do to me or SPJ what they did to #SPJEthicsWeek.
I don’t mind being wrong, but if SPJ leaders are right, it’ll just convince them to ignore GamerGate forever, plus future movements like it. (If you think GamerGate is unique, just wait.)
But if this is a clarion call for all rational GamerGaters to assert themselves, and for the antagonists to shut up so they can win, that’s the best-case scenario.
The worst-case scenario? Both me and SPJ catch hell from GamerGater hackers and attackers, and mainstream media continues to cover only the crap and never the core issue.
Here’s what it comes down to: GamerGate has an opportunity to go legit.
It got the attention of the world’s largest journalism organization through unethical means, and it can turn that right around. Even if SPJ says nothing more, its 7,000-plus members might. If the stupid shit can be tamped down over the next few weeks, I’ll even push for a session on GamerGate at an SPJ conference I’m helping organize in Miami this summer.
Your move, GamerGaters.
Update May 5: Moves have been made. Details below.