The Unanswered Question at #SPJAirplay’s #GamerGate Panel

Like many other gamers, I was watching the Airplay panel on #GamerGate at the SPJ convention in Miami, FL yesterday. While you’re sure to see articles about the event and the debate, as well as the results of a bomb threat forcing the venue and surrounding neighborhood to evacuate, I wanted to talk about what wasn’t actually discussed as a result of that evacuation.

The moderator, Michael Koretzky, wanted the afternoon panel to discuss how journalists should approach hashtag groups in the future, not specific to #GamerGate, and was adamant about not bringing up past mistakes and past issues. He repeatedly stated he, and the journalistic ethics representatives Lynn Walsh & Ren LaForme, weren’t originally there and didn’t know who did what in the past and thus wanted to hear nothing of it. Breitbart’s Milo Yiannopooulos questioned how to advise what to do going forward if past mistakes couldn’t be cited.

I don’t think it’s difficult, but it is best approached by redefining Koretzky’s question, which is what I wanted to do here, as well as answer it using the broad beginnings of GamerGate as the example:

If GamerGate had only started within the past week, how do gamers feel journalists should approach the situation to present a fair story?

My answer:

Examine what’s happened to start. Assuming we’re in the first week of stirrings, there’s been a post from a jilted lover claiming their ex, a game developer, was emotionally and psychologically abusive as well as involved in repeated infidelities within their relationship. One name specifically mentioned is a game journalist, though no accusations of conflict of interest or quid pro quo relationship has been mentioned in this post. Nonetheless, conversation has started in community forums and social media regarding perceived conflicts of interest and moderators have responded with very heavy hands to silence any discussion of the accusations to any degree.

If your publication is involved with anyone named in the post, the first and immediate thing to do is to talk to those named and understand specifics. Was there any positive coverage or mention of this person in your work and what was your relationship at the time? Is there any actual or potentially perceived conflict of interest? If so, update the articles with disclosures immediately and place those updates prominently at the top of the article.

Second, release a statement acknowledging the accusations and informing your readers that not only is that specific incident being evaluated, but your group is evaluating their ethics policies regarding conflicts of interests and disclosures as a whole. Update this if necessary, expanding to other topics that may have grown since its last revision, such as the arrival of platforms like Kickstarter or Patreon.

Third, if your site hosts forums, allow for discussion under heavy, but reasonable, moderation. Personal attacks, release of private information, or unhealthy comments are not acceptable, but in silencing all questions or discussion, moderators only add to the perception that there’s something more going on. Moderators should have a responsibility to help guide discussion in the right direction. In the case of the post that sparked GamerGate, the discussion should have been directed not at the game developer, but at the journalist, the publication(s), their policies, and if those policies lacked in ways that would allow, or already had allowed, other misconduct.

If you’re just a journalist wanting to cover a story about an online hashtag and weren’t involved in the situation to begin with, Milo said “just do the work.” Simple, yet also complicated in a leaderless, largely anonymous, online group. As a group of people only united by a hashtag to say “I agree there’s an issue here,” the question of who to talk to is obvious, but I don’t believe it can’t be answered.

So what would a journalist need to do? Again, we’re assuming the controversy is in its infancy here.

  1. Follow the hashtag for a day or two and identify two things.
    1. Who is well spoken and commenting on it favorably?
    2. Who is well spoken and commenting on it unfavorably?
  2. Contact a number of these people and ask if they’d be willing to be interviewed. As discussed at AirPlay, explain the difference between complete online anonymity vs journalistic anonymity where their full real name won’t be used in the article, but the journalist and their editor need to know who they are. I believe people will be willing to talk.
  3. Listen to both sides, take their statements and comments, then follow up on those by verifying them as much as possible. Find chat logs or online records such as Twitter history, archived pages, etc. to support claims. Basically, “trust, but verify.”
  4. Present both sides of the story. With GamerGate, it would have been: detail why one side believes the outrage is an attack against an indie dev for being a woman developing non-traditional games and the other side believes there is justifiable concern over impropriety and conflicts of interest in the publications they rely on to give them information on where to spend their money.
  5. COMB OVER DETAILS.
  6. When presenting the story, make it clear these are individuals who support the concept of the hashtag as they personally relate to it, but that they don’t claim to speak for the group as a whole.

I honestly believe in its infancy, it was this simple. Now, a year later, there may be more nuance and complications, but I wouldn’t change much. The only main addition I would advise journalists today, as the 1 year anniversary approaches, would be slight alterations/additions:

  1. Follow the hashtag and see which prominent online figures are cited. If the opposition to a position is citing someone as a prominent figure, it’s worth contacting that figure whether they are legitimately involved or not.
  2. Lurk on forums like Reddit and see where the users are listening for information, then talk to that source. Again, this may largely be YouTube channels.
  3. Contact people for interviews, as before.
  4. Be prepared to do multiple stories on the topic. There will be plenty of material.
  5. Again, COMB OVER DETAILS.
  6. When presenting the story, make it clear these are individuals who support the concept of the hashtag as they personally relate to it, but that they don’t claim to speak for the group as a whole.

I emphasize number 6 because I think it’s crucial to covering online groups associated with one another only through social media hashtags. With enough interviews, though, I think it is possible to identify common themes and present both sides of a story, even with sources who can be paranoid about their anonymity.

So basically, that’s what I think should be done not specifically to cover #GamerGate, but to start laying the groundwork for future stories with hashtag groups, which will likely only grow as our reliance on social media to communicate continues as well. This is simply my opinion based on nothing more than my thoughts. I don’t have experience in journalism beyond a single community college class years ago and don’t claim to be an expert, but I think it’s something that will grow more important in the years to come.

To paraphrase Oliver Campbell, journalism is essentially about communication. The people aren’t going to tell journalists how to do their jobs, but journalists are going to have to adapt to evolving methods of communication among people to pursue their stories.

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