Michael Koretzky saw an opportunity—that’s what he would call it, anyway. It was early May, and the Society of Professional Journalists had abandoned its #SPJEthicsWeek Twitter chat after it was overrun by numerous posts tagged with #Gamergate. The hashtag drew mainstream media attention last year for reactionary trolling and mob-like harassment online, aimed mostly at feminist writers and critics. Supporters’ attempts to change that narrative—“Actually, it’s about ethics in gaming journalism”—became a widely mocked meme across the internet.
The tweets that poured into SPJ’s tame-sounding conversation seemed to bear out Gamergate’s notorious reputation. One showed side-by-side images of a decapitated head and a headless body; many were otherwise sexist, homophobic, or violent. In a blog post explaining the decision to pull out of the discussion, SPJ’s ethics chair wrote that he’d “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.”
That rang of hypocrisy to Koretzky, who represents much of the southeast United States as an SPJ regional director. The Debt.com editor’s Twitter photo shows him smoking a fat cigar, and a one-sentence bio informs visitors: “There’s nothing more hypocritical than a thin-skinned journalist.” Koretzky took to his personal blog, JournoTerrorist.com, responding, “Is it ethical to refuse to talk about ethics?…Lost in the noise were some legitimate posts about journalism ethics.” His post received 176 comments, dozens of them multiple paragraphs in length.
“I want to go where the journalism is or should be,” Koretzky tells CJR. “Gamergate, like it or hate it, whether they were making an excuse for their misogyny or being legit, said they care about ethics. I don’t care if they believe that or not. I care if someone says ‘journalism ethics.’ You know how hard it is to get journalists to give a shit about ethics?”
SPJ has continued making the most of this “opportunity.” Koretzky organized an August 15 event in Miami that was billed as “the Gamergate ethics debate,” and included SPJ president-elect Lynn Walsh as a panelist. SPJ’s Board of Directors did not endorse the event, which was cut short after multiple bomb threats. Still, Koretzky has since successfully lobbied SPJ national to offer its first-ever awards for gaming journalism. Walsh, meanwhile, has agreed to sit on a South by Southwest panel in March that has been criticized for alleged Gamergate influence and was temporarily canceled amid threats of violence.
SPJ and Gamergate make for strange bedfellows. One is the nation’s largest journalism organization. Gamergate’s defining characteristic is that no one can agree on what it is. A year of prodding from various angles—and toxic commentary from all sides—has essentially proven it immune to the journalistic process as we know it.
Gamergate believers see themselves as consumer watchdogs of a games press that’s too cozy with the industry it covers; many posting under the tag appear to be soldiers in a culture war that extends far offline. Mainstream journalists ignored or declined to join in SPJ’s recent outreach, trying to avoid the anonymity-fueled invective that inevitably follows Gamergate-related discussions. The most sincere of the hashtag activists seek legitimacy in those same mainstream eyes. And to many of them, SPJ, an organization with an ethics code and professional-sounding name, makes for an ideal arbitrator to re-litigate what they compare to original sin: the media labeling Gamergate as a movement of hate.
SPJ’s goal in this endeavor is to essentially empower moderate elements within Gamergate—to target those who really care about ethics in gaming journalism. But if reckoning with Gamergate’s origin story is a prerequisite for that goal, as Slate columnist David Auerbach argues, it may very well be impossible.
“I think that there is next to zero interest among the press in establishing the facts around Gamergate, and quite a lot of pressure *against* establishing a factual record,” Auerbach writes in an email. “It has made any sort of public discussion around Gamergate impossible, and it is why I no longer participate in such discussion…I did my best to bring the actual facts to people’s attention, but as I told Koretzky when he invited me to the Florida SPJ event, I’m done with that particular Sisyphean boulder.”
Koretzky and Walsh are giving it a push in any case. Koretzky compares the ongoing argument over what Gamergate is—and what it is not—to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “You probably both have some points, but you guys have no common ground,” he says. “Any question gets answered with, ‘Here’s what happened 50 years ago.’”
Walsh, who will take office as SPJ president late next year, says that in talking to Gamergate supporters, she’s attempting to engage people “who seem interested in learning more about what it means to ethically report and write online. Also, people seem to want to have a better understanding of what journalists do. From my perspective and SPJ’s perspective, that’s great because those are people who’ve never heard of SPJ. It’s a whole other audience that’s only going to grow.”
Such outreach stems from a broader concern for the organization. Over the past decade, SPJ’s ranks have withered alongside those of traditional newsrooms. It now counts nearly 7,500 members, down from around 9,000 in 2008. Games journalism, on the other hand, is a new field covering a growing industry—unexplored territory where SPJ can potentially extend its reach.
It’s hard to argue against a more expansive view of journalism, not to mention who can produce it. The growth of single-topic publications—especially online—has demanded that SPJ reorient its approach to various subjects. Gaming is just one of many. The organization has started several “communities” to help focus discussions thematically. And the games journalism awards will serve as a trial run for approaching “other pockets of journalism that may not be currently served,” says current SPJ President Paul Fletcher.
“Finding all those areas and seeking a way to appeal to them is a way to keep up to date and keep on top of what’s happening in the field,” he says. Though Fletcher doesn’t know much about Gamergate, he adds, “We give our regions and local chapters autonomy to explore topics that they want to.”
It’s unclear whether engaging Gamergate will help SPJ engage the gaming community more broadly. Many mainstream journalists and academics argue that the organization is focusing not on a devoted movement with a potentially dangerous fringe, but on a group that is itself a potentially dangerous fringe.
“Some of it is really focused on reforming game journalism,” says Mia Consalvo, a Concordia University professor and president of the Digital Games Research Association. “Some are very focused on their image in the mainstream media. And then some are very angry with academics, with people like me, who they view as trying to inject feminist critiques into gaming culture.”
Muddled identity aside, mainstream observers have little inclination to revisit the issue. A number of top journalists in the field declined to speak to CJR on the record because they feared validating Gamergate as something more than a collection of trolls. One described the hashtag not as a movement with goals, but rather as a platform “used by anyone who wants to say something.” Another feared it would inject false equivalency into the debate: “There is no Gamergate and anti-Gamergate,” he says. “That’s like saying people who don’t collect postage stamps are anti-postage stamps.”
The aggressive rhetoric from all sides also threatens to alienate those who agree with some Gamergate critiques. “In general I think people have a right to question when a personal or financial relationship between a game developer and a writer/journalist is not disclosed,” writes James Fudge, managing editor of GamePolitics.com, in an email. Games journalists have to do better at disclosing such conflicts, he adds, but “I don’t think these are offenses worthy of a public execution.”
Gamergate apologists argue that the most offensive or threatening behavior comes from outsiders trying to stir trouble. But there’s the rub: It’s exceedingly difficult to tell.
“With any movement, you’re going to have the fringe,” Walsh says. “Obviously, SPJ does not support any harassment or threats of any kind. But if we even reach 40 percent of ‘the movement,’ if you will, and they begin asking these questions and thinking about these things, that, to me, is a success.”
The confusion tied to Gamergate was on full display during the August 15 event in Miami, known as AirPlay. Before Walsh sat on those panels, she says, “I really had no idea what Gamergate was except for a couple of articles that I read regarding harassment.” In a morning session, Walsh gave earnest input on supposed ethical lapses she’d never heard of. “I walked away from the first half sort of feeling very good about the conversation,” she says.
But when Koretzky and speakers knocked heads in the afternoon over the philosophy of Gamergate, Walsh adds, “it seemed like chaos. It seemed like there were issues talked about, like feminism, that I wasn’t there to be an expert on. We weren’t really talking about journalism.”
As a whole, the event was something of a surreal lesson in media illiteracy. Walsh and her co-panelist, Poynter’s Ren LaForme, explained the difference between news and opinion. The few dozen people in the live audience clapped when the pair deemed certain journalist-subject relationships unethical. They laughed when Koretzky described how reporters would be too scared to work as ombudsmen for games journalism coverage. Proponents repeatedly struggled to describe what Gamergate is, let alone why SPJ should care. At one point, trying to coax a simple answer in an event devoid of them, Walsh asked: “If you came to me and you want me to write about Gamergate, what am I writing about and why?”
Koretzky describes the second half of the event as “a beautiful disaster. It perfectly summed up what the problem is, not just with Gamergate but any online movement…I think what Gamergate learned from the afternoon debate was that they have to be their own journalists.”
Paolo Munoz, an outspoken Gamergate advocate who memorably harangued Gawker in the middle of the event, painted it as both a victory and stepping stone for the cause.
“AirPlay established that the gaming press and their relationships [in the industry] are serious conflicts of interest that harm the consumer,” he writes in an email. “The problem was that AirPlay was too small and the conversation too limited. There are far [more] facets of what went wrong with reporting on the Gamergate scandal that need to be addressed in some form by the wider field of journalism as we move further into the Information Age.”
For better and for worse, there will certainly be more opportunities for that. Walsh’s forthcoming SXSW panel will examine “current social/political landscape in the gaming community.” “It aims to be so much broader [than Gamergate],” says Perry Jones, the panel’s organizer, in an apparent attempt to distance it from the hashtag. Regardless, Walsh says she believes that SPJ has a role to play.
“I think there’s a sense that posting anonymously online won’t hurt anyone,” she says. “There has to be education there. I think showing a journalistic perspective will help in some way—maybe it won’t.”
For his part, Koretzky says he has sworn off holding another Gamergate event. “If you have kids or friends or hobbies, you shouldn’t get involved in this story,” he advised me. But the one-year trial run for SPJ’s first-ever slate of games journalism awards, which he spearheaded, has already borne fruit. As of November 17, just a week after the Kunkel Awards for Video Game Journalism were announced, SPJ had received 104 applications from 33 news organizations, from Breitbart to The New Yorker.
“Having pro journalists who know nothing about Gamergate judging journalism awards?” Koretzky says. “Both sides love that. Ignorance has become a commodity.”
Clarification: This post has been updated to clarify that SPJ in early May abandoned its #SPJEthicsWeek-tagged Twitter chat, not all Ethics Week-related discussions on Twitter.David Uberti is a writer in New York. He was previously a media reporter for Gizmodo Media Group and a staff writer for CJR. Follow him on Twitter @DavidUberti.