- Okay, let's get this out of the way first: as you'll quickly see, there is no way to write this post without someone accusing us of being hypocritical -- so we're going to just get it out of the way upfront and note that that's absolutely true, as the article we'll be linking to also admits that such hypocrisy is occasionally necessary in reporting. We hope that the reasons for why we're doing this post are clear in the text below, so going hogwild in the comments claiming hypocrisy won't be particularly productive. We know. We get it.
- This post really is not about GamerGate. It is really about ethics in journalism (I know, I know). We have no real interest in writing about the whole GamerGate thing at all, because almost none of it is interesting and almost all of it is incredibly, mind-bendingly stupid, no matter what position you're arguing. So, I'm really hoping -- while recognizing this hope will likely not be realized -- that the comments on this post won't actually be about GamerGate or any sort of debate about the merits of one side or the other, but rather about what this article is really about, which is the journalism coverage.
With that out of the way, as noted, we haven't been covering "GamerGate" at all, in part because the whole thing is just kind of ridiculous. There are a lot of wild accusations being thrown around on all sides, and a lot of really bad
actions and statements by a lot of people, leading to lots of other wild accusations. Some of the accusations are true, some are not true, many are wildly misleading. But the other reason we haven't been covering it is because it's covered to death everywhere else -- to an almost insane level. And that's
what we're talking about today, based on a great article by Jason Koebler over at Vice's Motherboard, noting that so much of the coverage exists because writing something about GamerGate appears to drive a ton of traffic
. And in the stupid click-driven world that many publications live off of these days, you do what brings in the traffic (disclaimer: see point 1 at the very top of this post):
The dirty secret here is that, unlike a story about Ebola or Monica Lewinsky or basically anything else anyone writes about, writers and editors can be assured that their GamerGate coverage gets a disproportionate amount of traffic. As far as online journalism gambling goes, it's one of the safer bets you can make.
That's because GamerGate story readership isn't the general public: It's the people who are in the movement itself. For proof of this, look at the fact that the vast majority of GamerGate coverage have hundreds and even thousands of comments—almost all of them from people in the movement.
But it's not just about GamerGate. It's about the way that online news has developed into this traffic-whoring stage, with lots of publications all rushing to cover "the thing that will bring traffic."
Apple announcing an iPhone is news, sure. But Apple announcing an iPhone and breathlessly writing 50 blog posts and a ~live blog~ and an instant analysis and hot takes is when reporting stops being reporting and starts becoming the journalistic equivalent of putting chips on every single number in roulette hoping Reddit or Facebook or someone else picks your story to win that day’s internet traffic lottery.
And, you know, it's not just tech journalism either:
The side effect of this is that the world starts thinking that every time the
House votes to repeal Obamacare or every time Congress holds a hearing about Benghazi or every time John Oliver TOTALLY EVISCERATES someone every time a fringe scientist says climate change isn’t real or every time a normal person or government agency joins Twitter or every time a celebrity gets plastic surgery or every time some internet nerds can rile up a Gawker writer on Twitter is capital-I Important.
They're all attempts to "win the social media lottery" to have a story go "viral" and suddenly have a lot more traffic.
Frankly, this is stupid. And it's something (again, disclaimer above) we mostly
try to avoid. There are a few of our regular critics who accuse us of being traffic whores ourselves (and I imagine a few of them may be rushing to comment as such on this article). They claim that we write what we write to get traffic. But here's a dirty little secret for you: if you want a lot of traffic, writing about intellectual property law, free speech, international trade agreements and regulatory capture isn't the best way to get it
. We've never covered a big Apple event. While we'll occasionally attend an event, we tend to write about it a day or two later, after we've had a chance to let things sink in. And we try
(though we don't always succeed) to provide a different take on things. We add our opinion (or, as the critics explain, we "spin" or report things in a "biased" way). We try to only write about stories that we actually think are interesting
(and, even then we only get to about a third of the stories we actually think are interesting).
As a result of that, I hope
that the people who read this site tend to be more loyal
and actually more interested in what we have to say (and often more willing to join in the discussion and join the larger community). But, that's not how many
media publications work today. It's all about the "metrics" -- the number of visitors, and with the social media firehose so big, the focus has been moving aggressively towards that viral lottery. That's not to say we don't keep tabs on our own traffic -- because of course we do. But we know that getting a big story on Reddit means a flood of people who visit for 30 seconds and move on. Our loyal readers are the ones who stick around, and hopefully it's because we're not providing one of fifty different stories about the same damn thing with the same "journalistic" take (i.e., without any color, without any opinion and without any heart). Our position may not be great for advertisers. I've had discussions with potential advertisers, explaining how we have a really loyal
community, and most of them don't seem to care. They just want bigger numbers, even if those bigger numbers are meaningless, because the audience doesn't give a shit. I would think that having a loyal, interested and committed community would be a lot more interesting to advertisers, but so many play the same stupid numbers game, and that leads so many publications to do the same.
There are a few publications that have clearly recognized that the hamster wheel chase of rewriting the identical story over and over again while adding nothing new is not worth it. It's been great to see and I've been encouraged by some publications that have really focused on building a loyal audience through doing something different and providing more value. But, for many, it's all about a single metric: traffic. Then it starts to feel a lot less like journalism or something socially valuable. It just feels like... well... a game.
For years, we've talked about how few seem to recognize that real journalism is about the community
, not about "the news." I'm hopeful that more people begin to recognize this. And for all the hypocrisy in this post (disclaimer 1), consider part of this hypocritical post to be an attempt to share why we do what we do -- and why we don't
do certain other things that we'd consider to be just cynical clickwhoring.
If we want to have a discussion about "ethics in journalism" perhaps it should start with a discussion about all of this.